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NCAN Report: Only About Half of Community Colleges Nationwide Are Affordable for Low-Income Students

Last updated: 06-23-2019

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NCAN Report: Only About Half of Community Colleges Nationwide Are Affordable for Low-Income Students

A new National College Access Network (NCAN) analysis shows that affordability is decreasing at two-year public institutions across the U.S. Only 48% of two-year institutions were affordable in 2016-17, according to the new report “The Growing Gap: Public Higher Education’s Declining Affordability for Low- Income Students,” which explores public college affordability for the average Pell Grant recipient. The analysis also includes an interactive online dashboard that displays affordability data at the national, state, and institutional levels.

NCAN proposes that a two-year public institution is affordable if its total cost of attendance for an in-district student plus $300 for emergency expenses does not exceed the combined total of: 1) that institution’s average federal, state, and institutional grant award; 2) average federal loan disbursement; 3) the expected family contribution of the average Pell Grant recipient; 4) an average Federal Work-Study award (representing reasonable part-time work); and 5) the contribution of summer full-time wages at minimum wage (untaxed). 

Students should not face the choice of taking on above-average student loans or working more hours to cover the total price of their education. Further, an emergency expense of as little as $300 can cause a student to drop out, which is why our formula includes a small amount of funding to cover things such as laptop crashes, car repairs, or a family emergency. 

When examining two-year institutions’ total cost of attendance, we use data for in-state students living off-campus not with family because this is a reality for many low-income students represented by our average Pell Grant recipient. This population is also the one to whom NCAN members target their services. Even if a low-income student is living with family, it is likely that the student is expected to contribute to family expenses.

When cost of attendance and emergency expenses exceed the sum of aid, contributions, and wages, NCAN calls that difference an “affordability gap.” 

Examining the affordability gaps in specific states, 11 states saw their percentage of affordable community colleges increase from 2012-13 to 2016-17, and 12 states saw their affordability gaps decrease. Among those 12 states, the average decrease was $1,048, and the average community college in these states was affordable by $888 in 2016-17. However, the average affordability gap for community colleges nationwide increased from $87 to $453.

To allow the public to further explore outcomes for this affordability measure, our interactive online dashboard displays the affordability gaps and percentages at the national, state, and institutional levels. This tool demonstrates for policymakers where the gaps in their state are and, in many cases, demonstrates the need for increased investment. For advocates of higher education funding, it depicts the reality students are facing. 

Community colleges serve a plethora of students who start school at different times of their life with different academic goals. While the overall national trend is heading in the wrong direction, the highlight of the twelve states that have become more affordable demonstrates that if policymakers purposefully invest in higher education systems and financial aid, college can become more affordable for today’s students.  

Carrie Warick is the director of policy and advocacy for the National College Access Network, whose members in 49 states are committed to helping more students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, and students of color enter and complete postsecondary education. Sancia Celestin is a policy intern at NCAN.


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