What Should Count as “Financial Aid?”

Financial aid has taken center stage in federal policy discussions recently, including President Obama’s plan to provide many students with two years of tuition-free community college and changes to the Byzantine system of higher education tax credits, deductions, and tax-preferred savings plans. (I’ve written about the two topics here and here.) But these discussions hint at a broader question—what should be considered “financial aid?” In some respects, financial aid is a little bit like pornography, as everyone knows it when they see it.

But definitions of “financial aid” vary quite a bit across individuals. This is evidenced by Jordan Weissman of Slate, who tweeted his thoughts on financial aid policy:

His definition includes grants, loans, and tax credits—the broadest possible definition. Libby Nelson at Vox agreed:

But she also noted the difficulty in determining what financial aid is:

I’m a little skeptical about whether tax credits should truly be considered aid, as they come so far after the tuition bill coming due:

Others weighed in, noting that loans often aren’t considered financial aid:

It’s worth noting here that all grants, loans, and work-study are included as financial aid that students can receive up to the total cost of attendance, but only grants are included in the calculation of the net price.

So, wise readers, what would you consider to be financial aid? Take the poll below and feel free to leave additional thoughts in the comments section.

How Many Students Pay Full Price at Private Colleges?

As private nonprofit colleges in many regions of the country struggle to recruit an incoming class that meets both enrollment and revenue goals, the percentage of students paying the full sticker price has decreased significantly. This is well-explained in Jeff Selingo’s piece in the Washington Post, for which I contributed some analyses. In this blog post, I provide a few additional details behind the numbers.

I used data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a nationally representative survey of undergraduate students conducted every four years. For this analysis, I pulled data from the 1999-2000 and 2011-12 waves to look at trends in the percentage of students receiving any grant aid. (The remainder of the students are paying full price.) I cut the data by institutional selectivity, as conventional wisdom is that less-selective institutions are struggling more than elite colleges.

Percent of students at private 4-year colleges receiving any grant aid (NPSAS).
Selectivity category 1999-2000 (pct) 2011-2012 (pct)
Overall 66.8 76.3
Very selective 60.6 72.2
Moderately selective 71.6 83.6
Minimally selective 63.4 71.3
Open admission 62.2 63.8


While the percentage of students receiving grant aid increased in all categories of colleges but open admission institutions, the percentage with grant aid and the growth over time was largest at moderately selective institutions. These colleges and universities are squeezed financially, as they compete with very selective colleges for some students while being forced to fend off less selective colleges that are offering some of their students larger aid packages. As a result, yield rates (the percent of students accepted to a college who actually attend) have dropped to 15% at some of these institutions.

The increased competition for students and reduced ability of families to pay full price are key reasons why Standard & Poor’s just issued a negative outlook for the creditworthiness of nonprofit higher education for 2015. The big question remains how long some colleges can afford to continue operating under current business models.

Comments on President Obama’s State of the Union Higher Education Proposals

As President Obama enters the last two years of his presidency, he has made higher education one of the key points in his policy platform. The announcement of a plan to give students two years of free tuition at community colleges has gotten a great deal of attention, even though a lot of details are still lacking. (See my analysis of the plan here.) In an unusual Saturday night release, the Obama Administration laid out some details of its tax proposals that will be further elaborated in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.

Many of the tax provisions will either directly affect higher education, or they will impact students and their families who are currently struggling to pay for college. Here is a quick overview of the provisions:

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to lower-income families with some wage income. This credit is fully refundable, meaning that families can benefit even if they don’t have a tax liability to offset with a credit (meaning that negative effective tax rates can result).
  • Expand and streamline the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is designed to offset high costs of child care. This could help the growing number of students who have children.
  • Consolidate the tuition and fees deduction and Lifetime Learning Credit into a streamlined and expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, and making the AOTC permanent (it is set to expire in 2017). The AOTC would be set at $2,500 per year for five years and would be indexed for inflation. The AOTC would also be expanded to cover part-time students and the refundable portion would increase from $1,000 to $1,500. Finally, Pell Grant funds received would not count toward the AOTC. The AOTC expansion would be partially covered by reducing tax incentives for 529 and Coverdell savings plans.
  • Eliminate any taxes on any student loan balances forgiven after making the full 20 years of payment under income-based repayment plans. Right now, students are scheduled to be taxed on any balances—although few (if any) students have actually faced the tax burden at this point. This would partially be paid for by getting rid of the student loan interest deduction; essentially, students would lose any tax benefits for paying interest during the life of the loan, but they could benefit at the end of the payment period.

Although the exact costs of each of these proposals will not be known until the President releases his budget document later this spring, it appears that much of the revenue needed to pay for these expanded programs will come from higher taxes on higher-income individuals and large financial companies. Those tax increases are extremely unlikely to be passed by a Republican Congress, but some of the individual tax credit proposals may still be considered with funding coming from other sources.

Putting concerns about feasibility and funding aside, there are some things to like about the President’s proposals, while there are other things not to like. I’m generally not a fan of tax credits for higher education, as it is far less efficient to give students and their families money months after enrollment instead of when they actually need it the most. A great new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by George Bulman and Caroline Hoxby examined the effectiveness of federal higher education tax credits and found essentially no impacts of tax credits on enrollment or persistence rates. It would be far better to give students a smaller grant at enrollment than a larger grant later on, but that is unlikely to ever happen due to the political popularity of tax credits on both sides of the aisle.

But I do like the part of the proposal that cuts the student loan interest deduction and directs the savings toward addressing the ticking time bomb of the loan forgiveness tax. The interest deduction is complicated, making it less likely to be claimed by lower-income households. Additionally, making interest partially tax-deductible could be seen as encouraging students to borrow more, potentially putting upward pressures on tuition. That is a difficult claim to verify empirically, but it is something that is often mentioned in discussions about college prices.

Regardless of whether any of these proposals become law, it is exciting to see so much discussion of higher education finance and policy at this point. Hopefully, there will be additional proposals coming from both sides of the political aisle that will help students access and complete high-quality higher education.

Thoughts on President Obama’s “Free Community College” Proposal

(NOTE: Updated 1/9/15 11 AM ET with discussion of state performance-based funding and maintenance of effort requirements.)

Two weeks in advance of the State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled a proposal for tuition-free community college that is getting a great deal of attention. The plan, which was influenced by a “Free Two-Year College Option” paper by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, calls for the federal government to fund three-fourths of the cost of tuition and fees while states fund the remainder. The student is then responsible for covering other costs that go along with college attendance, such as books and living expenses.

This is an ambitious and complicated proposal that requires a fiscal outlay and Congressional approval. As a researcher at the intersection of financial aid and accountability policies, there are some things to like about the proposal, but there are also some significant concerns. Below, I list some of the pros and cons of the tuition-free community college proposal, as well as some potential items that can best be classified as “mixed” at this point:


  • This sends a clear message that community college is an affordable option for all students. Even though tuition and fees make up a small portion of the total cost of attendance—and it is unclear if all students will see additional savings from this plan—telling students early on that tuition will be free may induce more to prepare for college and eventually enroll.
  • This could potentially encourage students to switch from expensive for-profit colleges to less-expensive community colleges for an associate’s degree. This would reduce their debt burden and maybe encourage them to pursue further education if desired.
  • This program will likely be targeted toward middle-income families who do not qualify for the Pell Grant, but cannot readily afford to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket each year for college. This group is key in building public support for higher education. (I don’t think it would affect the college choices of high-income families, who typically chose four-year institutions.)
  • Covering half-time students in addition to full-time students is a plus, although it remains to be seen whether half-time students would be eligible for additional years at a lower enrollment intensity.


  • The neediest students may not benefit as much from this plan as a straightforward increase to the Pell Grant, as some funds will go to students without financial need. At this point, it sounds like the proposal is NOT a last-dollar scholarship, meaning that all students will get at least some money. But while this is less efficient than increasing the Pell, the broad-based nature of the plan could gain additional political support.
  • If enough students switch from private to public colleges, the additional demand would force states and localities to undertake expensive capital building projects. This could also place additional strain on state financial aid programs.
  • The promise to cover three-fourths of tuition could encourage states and colleges to raise their tuition in order to qualify for more funds. Ideally, the legislation will have some sort of mechanism to prevent outright gaming, but community colleges in high-tuition states will effectively get more money than those in low-tuition states (often with a better history of state and local support). The state/federal/institutional interactions deserve careful scrutiny.
  • In order to qualify for the funds, states must allocate at least some appropriations based on performance instead of enrollment. This sounds like a good thing, but there are two problems. First, measuring performance is difficult–even with respect to graduation rates at community college. Second, as shown in research by Nick Hillman and David Tandberg, it is far from clear that performance-based funding policies improve student outcomes.

Mixed or unclear

  • Students must enroll half-time and earn at least a 2.5 GPA in order to qualify for free tuition. That is a step up from current rules for satisfactory academic progress for the Pell Grant, which typically requires a 2.0 GPA. It may help students be more serious about their studies, but it could also cut off struggling students who need additional support.
  • Requiring the state to fund the remaining cost of tuition could cut out the role of the local community college district. While some states have centralized funding structures for community colleges, others rely on local districts to fund their own college. Moving to a system of state-funded community colleges could help reduce massive funding inequities across districts, but it could reduce taxpayer support for higher education if they do not want their funds going elsewhere.
  • The plan calls for community colleges to work on transfer agreements with public four-year colleges and universities, which is a good thing. But I’d like to see the plan encourage collaboration with other regionally accredited institutions, including reputable private nonprofit and for-profit colleges.
  • The requirement that states maintain their effort for other sectors of higher education may induce some states to not participate. Additionally, if students shift from the four-year sector to two-year colleges, it’s not clear how “effort” should be defined.

We don’t know all of the details about the plan yet, but it is certain to generate a great deal of discussion in Washington and around the country. I’m looking forward to the conversation!

Public Comments to the Department of Education on College Ratings

It may be a new year, but the Obama Administration’s proposed Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) is still a hot topic. Most observers in the higher education policy and research communities (myself included) were less than overwhelmed by the proposed metrics released on December 19—sixteen months after the idea of ratings was first floated. My first take on the metrics can be found here, and there are too many good pieces about the metrics to mention them all.

The U.S. Department of Education has invited the public to provide additional feedback about the metrics used in PIRS (as well as the ratings system itself). You can submit your comments here before February 17. Below are my comments that I will submit to ED.


January 5, 2015

My name is Robert Kelchen and I am an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University as well as the methodologist for Washington Monthly magazine’s annual college rankings. (All opinions are my own.) After carefully examining the draft metrics proposed for potential inclusion in the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), I have the following comments and suggestions:

First, I am encouraged by the decision to exclude nondegree-granting colleges (mainly small for-profit colleges) from PIRS, as they are already subject to gainful employment. Holding them accountable for two different metrics is unreasonable. But in the two-year sector, it is essential to rate colleges that primarily grant associate’s degrees separately from those that primarily grant certificates due to the different lengths of those programs. The Department must divide two-year colleges up by their program emphasis (degree or certificate) in order for those ratings to be viewed as reasonable.

While I am glad to see discussions of multiple data sources in the draft metrics, I think the focus in the short term has to be using IPEDS data and previously-collected National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) data for student loan repayment or default rates. Using NSLDS data for student background characteristics (such as first-generation status) is nice for the future, but is unlikely to be ready by this fall—particularly if colleges wish to dispute those data. I encourage the Department to focus on two sets of measures: refining readily available metrics from IPEDS and NSLDS for the draft ratings and continuing to develop new metrics for 2018 and beyond.

Most of the metrics proposed seem reasonable, although I am thoroughly confused by the “EFC gap” metric due to the lack of details provided. Would this be a measure of unmet need, of the percentage of FAFSA filers below a certain EFC, or something else? The Department should consider how strongly correlated the EFC gap measure may be with existing net price or family income data already in IPEDS—and also issue additional guidance on what the metric might be so the public can provide more informed comments.

I was disappointed not to see a technical discussion of potential weights that could be used in the system, and there were no mentions of the possibility of using multiple years of data in developing PIRS. It is important that the ratings be reasonably robust to a number of model specifications, including variables selected and weights used. I encourage the Department to continue working in this area and consulting with statisticians and education researchers.

While I do not expect PIRS to be tied to any federal financial aid dollars—and it is quite possible that draft ratings are never released to the public—the Department has a tremendous opportunity to improve data collection. Overturning the ban on student unit record data would significantly improve the quality of the data, but this is a great time to have a conversation about what information should be collected and processed for both public-sector and private-sector accountability systems. I am happy to provide assistance to the Department if desired and I wish them the best of luck in this difficult endeavor.


I encourage everyone with an interest in PIRS to submit comments on the ratings, and to leave a copy of your comments in the comments section of this blog post.