College Pricing and Student Aid Reports Highlight Pandemic’s Growing Impact on Higher Ed

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Institutions of higher education are continuing to see the pandemic’s impact on student aid and college pricing in ways that are taking a toll on student engagement, according to a pair of new reports released today.

The reports, released annually by the College Board, provide the latest information on student financial aid, tuition, and other expenses associated with attending college and illustrate trends over time.

Notably, the reports found that for the first time in 2020-21, institutional grant aid accounted for more than half of all grant aid to postsecondary students. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, institutional grant aid rose by $25.6 billion (in 2020 dollars), reaching a total of $71.1 billion in 2020-21.

Under federal emergency funding, the average Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF I) funding (which included resources dedicated to both students and institutions) per full-time equivalent (FTE) student was about $900 at public two-year and public four-year institutions, $670 at private nonprofit four-year institutions, and $730 at for-profit institutions.

The 2021 Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid reports also delved into enrollment trends, with postsecondary enrollment declining by 3% overall due to a 4% decline in undergraduate programs and a small increase in graduate programs for the 2020-21 academic year.

In terms of the federal aid landscape, the College Board recapped the impact of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the implementation of HEERF relief, and the current pause on repayment and interest accrual on federal student loans. While these relief efforts provided a lifeline to students and schools, higher education institutions were still left to contend with shrinking student populations.

When it comes to the worrying enrollment trends, an estimated 600,000 students account for the 2020 decline from 2019. With student enrollment having reached its peak in 2010, the decline was more gradual — 1.3 million fewer students enrolled over the course of a decade.

Due to the pandemic, international student enrollment was significantly impacted and saw a double digit decline, which was especially acute in doctoral programs.

Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, students across all institution types reported increased participation in taking online courses, with 75% of all students in 2020 having reported taking at least one course remotely. In 2019, just 36% of undergraduate students reported having taken an online course.

According to the College Board’s data, annual borrowing in 2020-21 continued its decline since 2011, dropping 9% from 2019-20.

On the cumulative debt front, according to the reports, graduate students borrowed 47% of all federal loans in 2020-21. The average cumulative debt per borrower has also shown a gradual decrease since 2014-15, and in 2019-20 decreased to roughly $28,000 per borrower.

More than half of borrowers owe less than $20,000, with 45% of all outstanding federal loan debt owed by borrowers owing $80,000 or more.

Further, in the second quarter of 2021 it was reported that 19% of student loan borrowers were over the age of 50, a slight increase from 2017 when that total was 17%.

Notably, this year’s findings on net prices are not comparable with those reported in Trends in College Pricing 2019 and earlier editions because of changes in the sources used to calculate average grant aid per student.

Since 2009-10, first-time, full-time students at public two-year colleges have been receiving enough grant aid on average to cover their tuition and fees. Between 2006-07 and 2021-22, the average net tuition and fee price paid by first-time, full-time in-state students enrolled in public four-year institutions was lowest in 2021-22 at an estimated $2,640, after peaking in 2012-13 at $3,720 (in 2021 dollars). Between 2006-07 and 2021-22, the average net tuition and fee price paid by first-time, full-time students enrolled in private nonprofit four-year institutions was lowest in 2021-22 at an estimated $14,990.

The College Board’s annual report is now in its 40th year of publication. As the pandemic continues to impact the delivery and access of higher education, authors of the briefing encouraged policymakers to use their findings to further explore the pandemic’s impact on the higher education sector.


Publication Date: 10/27/2021

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