College Pricing and Student Aid Reports Capture Pre-Pandemic Trends, With Warning Signs About COVID’s Impact

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter  

The question of college affordability has been at the forefront of discussions concerning college access, and recent trends are offering some promising signs at improvements and financial stabilization, but authors of a set of annual reports are concerned about how the ongoing pandemic could ravage these gains. 

The report, released annually by the College Board, provides the latest information on student financial aid, tuition, and other expenses associated with attending college and illustrates trends over time. Notably, the report found historically low one-year percentage increases in published tuition and fees across all higher education sectors in 2020-21, with no change greater than a 2.1% increase. Although the increase in published tuition and fees has slowed, the growth over the last several decades has far outpaced increases in the median family income. Published tuition and fees at public four-year institutions, for example, have increased by 178% since 1990-91, while the median family income grew by just 28% during that same time.

Still, the average net tuition prices have been stable in the public sectors since 2011-12, with public four-year in-state institutions remaining below $4,000 and public two-year in-district institutions hovering around $0. The average net tuition at private non-profit four-year institutions has remained below $16,000. 

Similar to the previous iteration of the reports, the newly updated trends papers contained a multitude of data sets offering some indications that the prospects of college affordability are improving for students.

The 2020 trends reports account for a slow growth in total grant aid, stemming from a slight increase in institutional grants, now composing 49% of all grants awarded — an increase of 15 percentage points since 2010-11. However, the reports also point to a dip in federal grants as a portion of total grant aid, which have dropped 14 percentage points since the same timeframe, falling from 44% to 30%. Throughout this time period the makeup of state grants and private and employer grants have remained stable, oscillating a 1% difference. 

For the ninth consecutive year, the reports found annual borrowing continues to decline, particularly among undergraduate students, who saw a decrease in the amount of federal loans disbursed from $79.9 billion in 2009-10 to $50.3 billion in 2019-20 — putting them at nearly the same level as 2004-05 when total federal loan debt was $48.7 billion.

By that same metric, federal loans held by graduate students have remained stable since the 2009-10, hovering between $38.4 billion and $37.3 respectively. 

Another aspect of stability between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 has been averages in student loan debt per undergraduate and graduate borrowers. Among undergraduates, the average ticked down slightly from $28,900 to $28,800, while graduate students have seen a shift from $17,600 to $16,100. 

The report also documents the growth in international student enrollment from 1998 through 2018 which has more than doubled in total across all degree levels at both public and private nonprofit institutions with the largest cohort of students coming from doctoral programs. The ongoing pandemic has largely threatened these students’ enrollment across all education levels.

Further, with nearly all higher education learning now occurring online or remotely, the reports documented a somewhat modest increase in online course enrollment pre-pandemic, with a total of 34% of all higher education students enrolling in online courses by 2018. In 2012 that number was 26%.

The reports also point to the impact of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on student loan repayment. The law, in conjunction with President Donald Trump’s executive order suspended loan payments, without interest accrual, through the end of 2020. As compared to the third quarter of 2019, when 10% of student loan borrowers entered into forbearance, 69% of borrowers during the same period of 2020 are now utilizing the forbearance relief, with only 1% of borrowers continuing with repayment.

While it is still difficult to project the long-term implications of the pandemic on higher education, the authors urged readers to take these recently documented trends into account when analyzing what sort of inflection points might be occurring in the industry.


Publication Date: 10/26/2020

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