Much has been made of cost increases at private colleges, with many schools costing $75,000 or more annually. Recent research by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) shows that public colleges have also become increasingly unaffordable.

NCAN’s recent report, The Growing Gap, shows that public colleges and universities– once considered drivers of social mobility– are in fact becoming increasingly inaccessible to students from low-income families. In the five year period from 2014-2015 to 2018-2019, the share of community colleges that were affordable declined from 49% to 41%; for four-year colleges and universities, the decline was from 31% to 23%.

NCAN describes a school as affordable if the cost of attendance plus $300 for emergency expenses is less than the combined total of EFC of the average Pell Grant-eligible student plus average institutional grant, student loan disbursement, work study award and summer wages.

Affordability varied greatly by state. Washington, New Mexico and Florida had the highest rates of affordability, with 100% of two-year colleges and more than 2/3 of four-year colleges being affordable. On the opposite end, Illinois, Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island and New Hampshire had affordability rates in the single digits or even zero– including all community colleges.

Interestingly, a different report, by Stephen Burd of New America, showed that between 2001 and 2017, public universities drastically increased their spending on merit aid, often at the expense of need-based aid. Of 339 public colleges and universities surveyed, more than half had more than doubled their merit aid budgets, adjusted for inflation, in that time period. In many cases, doing so shifted aid dollars away from students with financial need.

Currently there are a number of proposals to increase the value of the Pell Grant, which would go a long way toward making college more affordable. However, the financial pressures states face coming out of the pandemic will likely further strain public higher education budgets.