Amid Rising College Costs, State Funding for Need-Based Aid is Too Low

By Katherine Saunders and Manuela Ekowo

The rising cost of college is at the forefront of the higher education debate. College costs are rising four times faster than family income, putting a postsecondary education further out of reach for low-income students.

Low-income students are often the first in their family to attend college and are at higher risk of dropping out because of unmet need—the gap between college costs and what students can afford to pay on their own and/or with aid that does not need to be repaid. One option available to address this gap is state need-based aid, which is awarded based on income and other financial factors (as opposed to academic performance). However, a recent report shows that, despite recent modest increases, state funding for such programs is still too low to measurably improve college access and success for low-income students.

Despite the proven success of need-based aid in reducing students’ financial burdens, investments to date have been far too small.  In 2012-13, the average full-time community college student still had more than $6,000 in unmet need. According to the most recent report from the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (NASSGAP), in 2011-12, the 50 states and District of Columbia spent a total of $6.8 billion on need-based grant aid for college students. While this is a 6 percent increase from the previous year, it averages out to only $482 per enrolled undergraduate student—less than one-fifth of what the federal government spent on Pell Grants, the primary federal grant program to help millions of low-income students access postsecondary education. California, New York, and Texas led all states with the amount of need-based undergraduate grant aid awarded to students in 2011-12.

All the available data shows that investing in an individual’s education and training provides states with a more skilled and educated workforce and improves states’ economies in both the short and long term. In a joint study of all 50 states with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), CLASP describes just how many workers need better skills and wages to become self-sufficient and promote economic growth in their state. This is consistent with research by the Economic Policy Institute, which finds that by increasing access to higher education, states will “expand economic opportunity and…do more to strengthen the overall state economy than anything else a state government can do.”

Many states are holding off on new investments until they have fully recovered from the recession, but students cannot afford to wait for the postsecondary education they need to secure their future. Need-based financial aid should continue to be a priority for states; it is a win for students and for state economies.