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.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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