When Financial Aid Falls Short: New Data Reveal Students Face Thousands in Unmet Need

College affordability is a pressing issue that’s made more urgent by rising costs, increasing enrollment, and changing student demographics. Public policies, however, have failed to keep pace with rising college costs and changing student needs and as a result, an increasing number of students are left with unmet financial need.

Unmet need can be considered a rough measure of our nation’s underinvestment in students that highlights the gap between expectations of affordability and reality. This brief, by Lauren Walizer, analyzes new ED data from academic year 2015-16 and finds that nearly three in four students experience unmet need, and that unmet need among college students has risen by 23 percent since academic year 2011-12. At public 2-year institutions, 71 percent of students have some unmet need averaging $4,920.

Unmet need is even greater among students attending 4-year, nonprofit, and for-profit institutions, and students of color and low-income students are both more likely to have unmet need and have more significant unmet need. While students at public colleges have less unmet need overall, they still face significant financial challenges.

Unmet need is a significant barrier to student enrollment and completion, and the lack of public policies to address it poses a significant challenge to improving access and advancing equity within postsecondary education. Equitable access to postsecondary education that is both affordable and high-quality is essential to creating a productive and dynamic economy. Federal and state policymakers and institutions should take advantage of the many policy options suggested in the paper to eliminate student unmet need.

Cover photo: Shutterstock, Monkey Business Images