The share of public higher education institutions affordable to students from low-income families shrunk between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 academic years, according to a new analysis.
The National College Attainment Network found that only 23% of 490 public four-years were affordable by 2018-19. The share was higher for community colleges, with NCAN considering 41% of 514 such schools to be affordable that year.
NCAN is one of dozens of higher ed groups that have been calling on the Biden administration to double the maximum Pell Grant award and index it to inflation to improve college access.
NCAN considers a public college to be affordable if its total in-state cost of attendance plus $300 in emergency expenses is lower than the combination of the institution's average grant awards, the average federal loan disbursement and Federal Work Study award, the expected family contribution of the average Pell Grant recipient and summer wages.
"The formula is designed to show the student is doing everything right," said Carrie Warick, NCAN's director of policy and advocacy. "They're taking advantage of all the opportunities available to them to fund their education and they're still not able to meet those requirements."
Over the five-year period studied, the share of affordable community colleges fell from 49% to 41%, while the portion of affordable four-year publics dropped from 31% to 23%.
Affordability gaps — or how much NCAN's student funding formula fell short of paying for the cost of attendance plus emergency expenses — also grew.
The average affordability gap at community colleges more than tripled during the period studied, reaching $855 by the 2018-19 academic year. The average affordability gap at public-four years, meanwhile, roughly doubled to $2,524.
"That's a pretty significant chunk for a student who was already working and already taking out a loan," Warick said.
Affordability varied widely by state. Florida, Washington and New Mexico were among the states with the highest shares of affordable colleges based on NCAN's sample. In a few states — including Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — fewer than 5% of the colleges were affordable.
President Joe Biden is pitching several ways to make college more affordable. He unveiled his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which would use $109 billion to make two years of community college free for students seeking a degree or credential. It would also use $80 billion to add up to $1,400 to the maximum value of the Pell Grant, which is $6,495 for the next academic year.
That increase, plus the additional $400 that Biden's budget request for the U.S. Department of Education would add to the Pell Grant, would cover the average affordability gap at community colleges, Warick noted. It would also cover roughly three-fourths of the average gap at public four-years.
Progressive lawmakers have pitched their own free college plans in recent weeks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., reintroduced the College for All Act, which would provide free tuition for community colleges and, for some students, free tuition at four-year public and private minority-serving institutions. It would also double the value of the maximum Pell Grant.