Report: Students Are Facing Increases in Unmet Need

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The amount of unmet need that students experience—the gap between the cost of attending college and the financial aid a student is granted—has increased in recent years, according to a new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). To meet the needs of today’s students, the report’s author suggests that federal and state governments increase their investment in need-based programs, such as Federal Work-Study (FWS), and improve financial aid policies, such as by increasing the maximum Pell Grant award.

Using new data from the Department of Education (ED) from academic year (AY) 2015-16, Lauren Walizer, senior policy analyst at CLASP, found that nearly 75 percent of students had unmet need, and that the average unmet need for community college students rose by 23 percent since AY 2011-12—from $4,011 to $4,920.

Walizer noted that students in the bottom income quartile at community colleges, though thought to be relatively affordable, had an average unmet need of $6,903, and those in the lower-middle quartile experienced an unmet need of $6,315. She found that students at four-year institutions had an average unmet need of $9,100 and those at private colleges saw an unmet need of $14,000. Students attending for-profit institutions saw a similar figure of $15,000.

Walizer wrote that Asian-American students had the largest amount of unmet need across all institution types, “although the cause is not fully known.”  She hypothesized that it may be the result of international students who cannot pay in-state tuition and may not be able to access financial aid, combined with the fact that there are subpopulations of Asian-Americans that live in poverty.  

“Student unmet need is a symptom of a larger college affordability problem, as well as broader systemic societal and economic barriers that students face before, during, and after college,” Walizer wrote. “These include insufficient state and federal grant aid programs, the weakening of our nation’s social safety net, and the dearth of jobs that pay family-sustaining wages.”

Walizer wrote that the gap in affordability that unmet need presents can cause students to reduce the number of courses they take or drop out of school. It may also drive them to take out “costly student loan debt that can endanger their financial future,” Walizer wrote. She warned that the “perception of unmet need” can also deter people from attempting to pursue a college education in the first place.

Walizer suggested that federal and state governments work to improve student resources, such as the maximum Pell Grant award, which now “covers just half of the total cost of community college.” The recently passed fiscal year 2019 spending bill for defense, labor, health, and education programs included a $100 increase, resulting in a $6,195 maximum award.

Walizer also recommended that policymakers better support other federal programs, such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and FWS programs, which were flat-funded in the spending bill at $840 million and $1.1 billion, respectively. Walizer suggested that lawmakers also continue to establish and implement free college programs to assist students with the most unmet need, and consider creating a negative Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for the FAFSA to “more accurately determine the need of the lowest-income students.”

“When policymakers don’t address unmet need, college becomes increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible for all students but particularly students of color, who comprise a growing share of our nation’s college-going population,” Walizer wrote. “... Federal and state policymakers and institutions should take advantage of the many policy options available to eliminate student unmet need.”


Publication Date: 12/12/2018

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