College Board Trends Report Paints Changing Picture of College Cost

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

What the average student pays to attend college — after accounting for grants, loans, and other financial aid — has stagnated in recent years. But how students pay the remaining cost, known as the net price, has changed over time, according to a new report from the College Board published this week.

The Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report, released annually by the College Board, found that the average grant aid per student has increased over the last two decades, federal student loan borrowing continues to decline, and non-federal sources of grant aid are making up a larger portion of total grant aid to students.

Notably, the College Board found that tuition increases have slowed across all sectors, with inflation-adjusted average published tuition and fees peaking in 2019-20 and declining between 2019-20 and 2023-24. The College Board notes this is likely due to the pandemic. 

“Recognizing the struggles students and families face in paying for college, many colleges and universities did not raise tuition during the pandemic,” the College Board wrote. 

Meanwhile, higher grant aid per student is helping to temper the total that students pay for college. The average undergraduate student in 2022-23 received $10,680 in grant aid, an 81% increase from two decades ago, and took out $3,860 in federal student loans, the report found. 

The College Board noted that since 2009-10, first-time full-time in-district students at public two-year colleges have been receiving enough grant aid on average to cover their tuition and fees.

Net tuition and fees for the average first-time student attending a public four-year institution came in at $2,730, with a net cost of attendance of $20,310, which accounts for housing and food, books and supplies, transportation, and other costs. Meanwhile, the average first-time student attending a private non-profit four-year institution saw a net tuition and fees cost of $15,910, with a net cost of attendance of $34,790. 

Across the board, the net cost of attendance in 2022-23 was slightly lower than 10 years ago.

“Changes in sticker prices tend to garner the most media attention,” the College Board wrote. “However, it is important to note that the majority of undergraduate students do not pay the full sticker price. Grant aid does not need to be repaid and helps lower the actual prices that students and families pay.”

Overall, undergraduate and graduate students in 2022-23 received a total of $240.7 billion in student aid in the form of grants, Federal Work-Study (FWS), federal loans, and federal tax benefits. Additionally, undergraduate and graduate students together borrowed about $14.7 billion from non-federal loans, though borrowing for undergraduate students declined for the 12th consecutive year.

Specifically, undergraduate students in 2022-23 received a total of $177 billion in grant aid and graduate students received $63.7 billion. Keeping with a trend of recent years, institutional aid in 2022-23 continued to make up the largest portion of total undergraduate grant aid, at 53%. Just 10 years ago, in 2012-13, institutional grant aid made up 40% of all undergraduate grant aid.  

Notably, institutional grant aid is up for all higher education sectors. In 2020-21, the average institutional grant from a private nonprofit four-year was $19,870, a $9,000 increase (in 2020 dollars) from 2006-07. For public four-year institutions, the average institutional grant was $3,800 — up from $1,700 (in 2020 dollars) in 2006-07 — and for public two-year institutions, the average was $460 — up from $210 (in 2020 dollars) in 2006-07. 

And in the last 10 years, non-federal sources of grant aid have increasingly made up a larger percentage of all student aid given to undergraduate students, rising from 30% in 2012-13 to 49% in 2022-23.

However, the College Board notes total grant aid — meaning the total of state, private and employer, institutional, and federal grants given to students —  has been decreasing since 2019-20, from $160.1 billion to $145.3 billion in 2022-23. The overall decrease can largely be attributed to recent declines in enrollment — fewer students attending college means less grant aid will be doled out.

Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, total enrollment declined by 947,900, or 5%, from 19.5 million to 18.6 million. However, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released preliminary findings in October that undergraduate enrollment is 2.1% higher and graduate enrollment is 0.7% higher this fall than last year. 

Overall Pell Grant funding peaked in 2010-11 at $47.9 billion (in 2022 dollars) and declined to $27.2 billion in 2022-23 — a 43% decline. But during that same time, the number of Pell Grant recipients dropped, from 9.3 million to 6 million. The average Pell Grant in 2022-23 was $4,510, compared with $3,960 in 2002-03. 

When looking at student borrowing, graduate students in 2022-23 took out $39.4 billion in federal loans, while undergraduates took out $44.1 billion in federal loans. Loans made up a majority of graduate student funding, at 63%. For comparison, federal student loans made up 30% of all aid for undergraduate students. 

The numbers in graduate student funding aren’t much different than a decade ago, in 2012-13, when loans made up 68% of graduate student funding. This is notable due to a recent report from the Department of Education, which found that graduate loans could soon comprise the majority of the federal student loan portfolio. 

Chazz Robinson, an education policy advisor at Third Way, recently spoke with NASFAA on “Off the Cuff” about concerns and trends he has seen in graduate student debt. 

The College Board wrote in its report that the increase in graduate student borrowing is likely a result of borrowing limits, as well as the increase in the number of graduate PLUS loan borrowers. 

“Graduate students can borrow through the unsubsidized loan program and the federal grad PLUS loan program,” the College Board wrote. “While the unsubsidized loan borrowing limits have not changed since 2008, graduate students and parents of dependent undergraduate students can borrow up to the full cost of attendance not covered by grant aid through the grad PLUS and parent PLUS programs, respectively.”


Publication Date: 11/2/2023

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