Washington Watch: New info on college costs, aid


The College Board last week issued its latest annual report detailing the most-recent information on college costs and student aid — the financing equation.  The document, “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid,” provides a wealth of information about tuitions and financial aid that policymakers rely on year-round.

The College Board notes that in-district tuition at community colleges for the current year was $3,860, just $60 more than the previous year, or a 1.6% increase. Amazingly, when adjusted for inflation, community college tuitions did not increase at all over the last 10 years. This is especially notable given the long-running decline in community college enrollments, coupled with increased enrollments at four-year institutions. 

The College Board tuition figures are weighted by student enrollments (rather than simply averaging each college’s tuition), and California’s comparatively low fees pull down the sector’s overall tuition and fees. In only 10 states are the in-state tuition and fees lower than the national average. That said, tuition and fees are only a small part of a community college student’s cost of attendance — total expenses averaged $19,230. 

Pell Grant use slides, surplus accrues

Community college students continue to heavily rely on the Pell Grant program, which remains at the center of the American Association of Community Colleges‘ (AACC) advocacy agenda. The Pell Grant program contributes substantially to the fact that, according to the College Board, the average “net tuition” for community college students (i.e., tuition and fees minus average grant assistance) is a negative $860, though, again, tuition and fees make up only a small portion of student’s total costs. Two-year public college students receive 30% of all Pell Grant funds. They receive 24% of Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grand funds and 17% of Federal Work-Study awards.

Across higher education, including community colleges, the number of Pell grants received has declined markedly over the last decade. Many factors have contributed to this reduction, including the drop in overall student enrollments and a decline in student need — at least as measured by federal needs analysis. 

Between 2011-12 and 2021-22, the total number of Pell Grant awards dipped from 9.4 million to 6.1 million — a 35% drop — while total undergraduate headcount enrollments decreased by 18.5%, roughly half that amount. The dramatic decline in the number of Pell Grant recipients occurred while the number of students filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) increased; the application increase was spurred, in part, by some state requirements for high school graduation as well as “Promise” programs that make students apply for federal student aid to qualify for assistance. 

Adjusted for inflation, the average grant decreased by almost 11% over the last 10 years. This decline will likely be checked when the $400 increase in the current award year is considered. A $500 increase for next year is also on the table in Congress. 

The drop in Pell Grant awards coupled with largely steady Congressional appropriations has resulted in a piling up of the Pell Grant surplus fund. The surplus now stands at $13.9 billion, in contrast to the most recent annual appropriation of $21.4 billion. 

Borrowing also down

Despite the national focus on student debt and the Biden administration’s loan cancellation plan, undergraduate student borrowing has been declining for years. Between 2011-12 and 2021-22, federal loans to undergraduate students dropped by a startling 50%. Although graduate borrowing declined as well, by 9%, a full 48% of all federal education loans now go to graduate and professional students.  Increasingly, federal loan policy is about postbaccalaureate students, a fact that largely escapes the public. 

Public two-year college students represent a small share of overall federal borrowers. They account for 10% of all the unsubsidized loans awarded and just 4% of the subsidized loans. Average community college debt, for the relatively small percentage of students who have it, is slightly less than $10,000. AACC will continue to monitor these and related developments in pursuing its public policy agenda. 

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.