- The share of public colleges considered affordable to low-income students decreased between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 academic years, according to a new report from the National College Access Network (NCAN).
- NCAN defines an affordable college as one with a total cost of attendance not exceeding the combination of: its average grant and federal loan awards; average expected family contribution for Pell Grant recipients; average Federal-Work Study award; and summer wages, plus $300.
- According to this formula, about half (48%) of community colleges and one-fourth (27%) of four-year public colleges were affordable in the 2016-17 academic year. That's down from 54% and 35%, respectively, in 2012-13.
Based on NCAN's calculation, an average student would still on the hook for $2,118 at a four-year public college in 2017-18 even after taking into account all aid, loans and family contributions. That's an increase from $1,174 in 2012-13. The amount, which NCAN calls an affordability gap, has also grown at community colleges, rising from $87 to $453 over the same period.
NCAN also identified disparities in college affordability by state. Eight states — including Arizona, Massachusetts and Wisconsin — did not have a public four-year college NCAN considered affordable between 2012-13 and 2016-17. New Hampshire and Rhode Island had no affordable community colleges during that period.
"States really ought to look at how they're investing their money in higher education," said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at NCAN, in an interview with Education Dive. "If you have more affordable higher education as a state, you would be increasing access for students and reaping the benefits of that downstream."
The absence of affordable colleges has critical ramifications for a state's residents. That's because more than half (57.4%) of incoming freshmen at four-year public colleges attend an institution within 50 miles of their homes, according to a 2016 report from American Council on Education, which notes that higher income students are "less affected by distance."
For students, DeBuan said, "when you're starting with low percentages of institutions that you can even afford ... it's kind of a discouraging landscape."
Other reports have yielded similar findings. On average, a low-income student pays the equivalent of or more than their family's total annual earnings to attend a single year at a four-year college, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Meanwhile, high-income students usually contribute just 15% of their family's annual earnings to pay for the same amount of education.
NCAN's report is meant to "raise a red flag for decision-makers," its authors write. At the institution level, colleges should emphasize need-based aid over merit aid, DeBaun said. "To the extent that they can package things differently or just make institutional choices about the way they're going to award grant aid — that's probably the best lever they have," he added.
Additionally, the report urges federal policymakers to make college affordability a key piece of the Higher Education Act reauthorization. To do so, NCAN has previously urged Congress to strengthen the Pell Grant by indexing it to the rate of inflation and increasing the maximum award.