Analysis: Most Students Face Unmet Need When Paying for College

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

An increasing number of students now face unmet need in higher education according to a new analysis out this month from the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP), which also detailed concerningly stark financial disparities between student populations.

Unmet need, IHEP noted, is the gap between students’ total college costs, including tuition and non-tuition expenses, and the funds available to them through grant aid and family resources. As a result, students with unmet need take out more student loans, work more hours, face higher degrees of food and housing insecurity, and are at greater risk of not enrolling in higher education or leaving school without a credential, IHEP wrote. 

For this brief, IHEP analyzed data from the Department of Education’s (ED) 2019-20 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and analyzed three measures of postsecondary affordability, including the share of students with unmet need, average unmet need, and the portion of household income required to pay for college. 

One of the major findings determined that 90% of students who received a federal Pell Grant at least once face unmet need, compared to 56% of students who never received a Pell Grant. While the majority of students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds struggle with unmet need, IHEP found that American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Latinx and/or Hispanic, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, are more likely to have unmet need than white students. 

Specifically, 88% of Black students faced unmet need in 2019-20, followed by 82% of Latinx and/or Hispanic students, and 78% of American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students. IHEP noted that this is a contributing factor as to why these students face high levels of student loan debt post-graduation. 

In terms of dollar amounts, Black students on average face an unmet need gap of $8,942 in 2019-20, followed by Asian students with an average gap of $6,568, Latinx and/or Hispanic students at $6,352, American Indian or Alaska Native at $5,447, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students at $5,313. White students were able to cover their college costs with grants and estimated family resources, with an average of about $315 of resources left over.

IHEP also found that students who received a Pell Grant at least once face an average unmet need of $9,791, while students who never received a Pell Grant were able to cover college costs using grants and family resources with $4,956 left to spare, on average. 

In order for students and families from the lowest household incomes to pay the net price at a four-year college in 2019-20, IHEP found that they would, on average, need to contribute 148% of their household income. Comparatively students and families with the highest incomes would need to, on average, contribute just 13% of their household income. 

In the analysis IHEP urged policymakers to double the Pell Grant and fund first-dollar free college programs in order to make sure students of color can “access, afford, and succeed in college.”

“The latest federal data demonstrate that college remains unaffordable for many students,”  IHEP wrote, "especially American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Latinx and/or Hispanic, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students and students from low-income backgrounds.”


Publication Date: 8/28/2023

Darren C | 8/29/2023 9:7:20 AM

Instead of using the solution of "throw more money at the problem" which is a band aid, not a solution, it would be great to actually dive into the core of the issue and work on building up the "populations" that are struggling. Find out what these populations are lacking and why, and where they need support. It may take some serious time and effort, but if we want to see all people thrive we need to start addressing struggles from the ground up.

Whether that be basic skills, family structure, or different support services, providing these at the ground level, rolling back educational expectations and looking at goals more long term could actually benefit people for generations to come. Doubling a Pell grant does not make anyone "succeed in college", having the confidence, skills and support to meet the educational standards does and that will not happen overnight.

David S | 8/28/2023 9:38:15 AM

Alternate headline: Applying Data to What We All Knew Already.

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