More Undergraduate Students Receive Financial Aid But Still Fall Short of Meeting College Costs

By Katherine Saunders and Marcie Foster

Both the percentage of undergraduate students receiving financial aid and the average annual amount of aid has increased since the end of the Great Recession, according to new data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS) released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some 71 percent of undergraduates received some form of financial aid in the 2011-2012 academic year, compared to 66 percent in 2007-2008, with the average aid amount increasing from $9,000 to $10,800.While this increase is partly due to expanded Pell Grant eligibility, rising college enrollment and skyrocketing college costs likely played a significant role.

Yet, while more undergraduates are receiving student aid, the average college student still suffers from significant unmet need—the “gap” between college costs and what students can afford to pay on their own or with grant aid. This gap must be financed through public or private loans, or with additional funds from the student beyond what they may be able to afford.

Community college students are among those undergraduates with substantial unmet need. For example, in 2007-2008, over 98 percent of independent, full-time community college students with incomes in the bottom three quartiles (<$30,622) had unmet need. And in 2012-2013, the average full-time community college student had more than $6,000 in unmet need, according to the College Board.

Those with unmet need may receive financial aid, including Pell Grants, but that support is not enough to meet college costs, often forcing students to take out loans. The new NPSAS data confirms this: forty percent of undergraduates borrowed federal loans in 2011-12, a 5 percent increase over 2007-2008.The average amount borrowed grew from $5,000 to $6,400.

Unmet need, particularly for community college students, acts as a barrier to academic success and upward mobility. Unmet need forces community college students to work longer hours and scale back their enrollment to part-time, delaying or threatening their degree completion. A 2009 study found that 69 percent of students who left school without a degree or certificate did not receive scholarships or financial aid.

Selected findings in the NPSAS data also demonstrate persistent inequalities in the receipt of aid among different types of students. For instance, independent students are less likely to receive state or institutional aid than their dependent peers. Only 18.7 percent of independent students received state aid, compared to 26.4 percent of dependent students. Moreover, just 18.6 percent of independent students received institutional aid, compared to 40.6 percent of dependent students.

Additionally, data indicate that a greater proportion of independent undergraduate students (compared to dependent students) are extremely low-income. Fifty percent of independent students have incomes below $20,000, while only 15.8 percent of dependent students come from families that make less than $20,000.And it is worth noting that these figures only capture full-time, full-year undergraduates, a category under which fewer independent students fall. Independent students are more likely to attend college a mixture of part-time, full-time, and less-than-half-time; only half of independent students are enrolled mostly full-time (48.8 percent),compared to three-fourths (74.4 percent) of dependent students.

Despite the perception that community college is more affordable due to lower tuition rates, other college costs, such as books, supplies, and living expenses, are still substantial. More must be done to ensure that low-income students receive sufficient aid to address their still-high levels of unmet need.

Federal policies to support this goal include reducing the “work penalty” for low-income college students by allowing them to keep a greater proportion of their income from work to help cover living expenses; preserving continuous student aid among students who attend college a mix of full and part-time, reducing unexpected drop-offs in aid; and awarding the neediest students additional aid by using a “negative expected family contribution” to calculate a student’s ability to pay.

Increasing access to public benefits such as food assistance, health insurance, and child care subsidies is also a critical strategy to help fill the gap between financial aid and the resources needed to attend and complete college. CLASP is advancing that approach through its Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) initiative.