How Colleges’ Net Prices Fluctuate Over Time

This piece first appeared at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

As student loan debt has exceeded $1.2 trillion and many colleges continue to raise tuition prices faster than inflation, students, their families, and policymakers have further scrutinized how much money students pay to attend college. A key metric of affordability is the net price of attendance, defined as the total cost of attendance (tuition and fees, books and supplies, and a living allowance) less all grants and scholarships received by students with federal financial aid. The net price is a key accountability metric used in tools such as the federal government’s College Scorecard and the annual Washington Monthly college rankings that I compile. In this post, I am focusing on newly released net price data from the U.S. Department of Education through the 2013-14 academic year.

I first examined trends in net prices since the 2009-10 academic year for the 2,621 public two-year, public four-year, and private nonprofit four-year colleges that operate on the traditional academic year calendar. I do this for all students receiving federal financial aid (roughly 70% of all college students nationwide), as well as students with family incomes below $30,000 per year—roughly the lowest income quintile of students. Note that students from different backgrounds qualify for different levels of financial aid from both the federal government and the college they attend (and hence face different net prices). Table 1 shows the annual percentage changes in the median net price by sector over each of the five most recent years, as well as the median net price in 2013-14.


The net price trends in the most recent year of data (2012-13 to 2013-14) look pretty good for students and their families. The median net price for all students with financial aid increased by just 0.1% at two-year public colleges, 1.4% at four-year public colleges, and 1.7% at four-year private nonprofit colleges—roughly in line with inflation. The lowest-income students saw lower net prices in 2013-14 at two-year public colleges (-1.4%) and four-year private nonprofit colleges (-0.5%) and a small 0.4% increase at four-year public colleges.

Even with one year of good news, net prices are up about 15% at four-year colleges and 10% at two-year colleges since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2009, with a slightly larger percentage increase for lower-income students. Much of this increase in net prices, particularly for lowest-income students, occurred during the 2011-12 academic year.

Although some may blame the lingering effects of the recession or reduced state funding for the increase, in my view the likely culprit appears to be changes made to the federal Pell Grant program. In 2011-12, the income cutoff for an automatic zero EFC (Expected Family Contribution, and hence automatically qualifying for the maximum Pell Grant) was cut from $31,000 to $23,000. This resulted in a 25% decline in the number of automatic zero EFC students and contributed to the average Pell award falling by $278—the first decline in average Pell awards since 2005.

I next examined potential reasons for colleges’ changes in net prices. As colleges are facing incentives to lower their net price, they can do so in three main ways. Lowering tuition prices or increasing institutional grant aid would both benefit students, but they are difficult for cash-strapped colleges to achieve.

If colleges want to lower their net price without sacrificing tuition or housing revenue, the easiest way to do so is to reduce living allowances for off-campus students. Colleges have wide latitude in setting these living allowances, and research that I’ve conducted with Sara Goldrick-Rab at Wisconsin and Braden Hosch at Stony Brook shows a wide range in living allowances within the same county. Here, I looked at whether colleges’ patterns of changing tuition and fees or their off-campus living allowance seemed to be related to their change in net price.

Table 2 shows the change between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years in the total cost of attendance (COA), tuition and fees, and off-campus living allowances (for colleges with off-campus students), broken down by changes in the net price. Colleges with the largest increases in net price (greater than $2,000) increased their COA for off-campus students by $1,398, while colleges with smaller increases (between $0 and $1,999) increased their COA by $829. Both groups of colleges typically increased both tuition and fees and living allowances, which together resulted in the increase in COA.


However, colleges with a reported decrease in net price between 2012-13 and 2013-14 had a different pattern of changes. They still increased tuition and fees, but they reduced off-campus living allowances in order to keep the cost of attendance lower. For example, the 131 colleges with a decrease in net price of at least $2,000 had average tuition increases of $310 while living allowances were reduced by $610. Some of these reductions in allowances may be perfectly reasonable (for example, if rent prices around a college fall), but others may deserve additional scrutiny.

The net price data provide useful insights regarding trends in college affordability, but students and their families should not necessarily expect the posted net price to reflect how much money they will need to pay for tuition, fees, and other necessary living expenses during the academic year. These metrics tend to be more accurate for on-campus students (as a college controls room and board prices), but everyone should also look at colleges’ net price calculators for more individualized price estimates as the net price for off-campus students in particular may not reflect their actual expenses.

Comments on the Bush Higher Education Proposal

The three Democratic candidates for president all released their plans for higher education fairly early in the campaign cycle, with Sen. Clinton, Gov. O’Malley, and Sen. Sanders’s plans all including some variation of tuition-free or debt-free public college. These plans are all likely dead on arrival in Congress due to their price tags ($350 billion for the Clinton plan) and the high probability that Republicans hold the House of Representatives through 2020, but the candidates deserve credit for making higher education a key part of their domestic policy platforms.

On the Republican side, higher education has been much less important during the campaign, with only Sen. Rubio having a framework (with a good number of components that may enjoy bipartisan support) in place for higher education before now. But Gov. Bush’s newly released proposal for education reform (as summarized in this piece written by Jason Delisle and Andrew Kelly, two informal advisors to the Bush campaign and people I greatly respect) reflects the most detailed proposal from any of the Republican candidates. (Gov. Bush’s summary on Medium is available here.) And like Rubio’s plan, there are components that will likely get bipartisan support in Congress—while other parts are likely to face opposition from within his own party. Below are the key planks of Bush’s higher education platform, along with my comments on whether they are likely to be effective and feasible.

Proposal 1: Replace the current financial aid system with education savings accounts and a line of credit. If one thing unites all presidential candidates, it’s that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid needs to be either incredibly simple or eliminated. The Bush proposal would replace the FAFSA for most students with an education savings account based on the tax code. All students would get a $50,000 line of credit (roughly the same as what independent students can borrow for a bachelor’s degree today), and low-income students would get an additional account with need-based aid based on their family’s income in high school. Adults would also qualify for grant aid, likely by filling out some new version of the FAFSA. Tax credits would also disappear in the Bush proposal, which will probably upset some people although they have not been proven to induce students to enroll in or graduate from college.

This proposal represents a modest—but likely helpful—improvement over the current system for undergraduate students. This would give students at least some additional flexibility in using their financial aid, with the potential for students to accelerate their progress by taking summer courses that would not be aid-eligible under current rules. Getting students information about their likely aid eligibility in eighth grade is a plus, as shown in my research. But I’d like to see students get money deposited in their account at a slightly earlier age to make the commitment seem more tangible.

It appears that the $50,000 line of credit will be the new lifetime limit for federal student loans. For undergraduate students, this makes a lot of sense. The typical student with debt has between $30,000 and $35,000 in debt for a bachelor’s degree, so $50,000 seems like a reasonable upper bound for most students. However, it doesn’t look like graduate students would qualify for additional credit—which could curtail enrollment in master’s degree programs or doctoral programs in less-lucrative fields. This could create an opportunity for the expanded use of income share agreements with the private sector.

Proposal 2: Impose “risk sharing” on federal student loan dollars by holding colleges responsible for a portion of loans that are not repaid. The general principal of risk sharing makes sense—if a college’s former students can’t pay the bills, then the college should be responsible for partially reimbursing taxpayers. And the idea has at least some bipartisan support, as evidenced by 2015 legislation introduced by Senators Hatch (R) and Shaheen (D). But putting together a risk sharing proposal that doesn’t punish colleges for serving at-risk students while protecting taxpayer funds is far more difficult than it would first appear. I’ve tangled with some of these issues in my prior work (see my proposed framework for a risk sharing system), and the Bush team will have to do the same if their candidate pulls off an improbable comeback.

Proposal 3: Allow new providers to receive federal financial aid dollars. Right now, students can take their federal financial aid dollars to any of the approximately 7,500 colleges and universities nationwide that are eligible for and participate in programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Conservatives have frequently called for other non-college providers (such as boot camps, apprenticeship programs, and single-course providers) to be eligible for federal financial aid to promote competition and potentially place downward pressure on the price tag of traditional programs. However, making this sort of change would likely require a significant overhaul of the current accreditation system, which has been deemed a cartel by some Republicans.

Bush’s proposal echoes these calls, but also proposes that prior learning assessments qualify for federal financial aid. This would allow students to use Pell Grant or student loan dollars to pay for taking tests such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) that can result in college credit if a student can demonstrate subject mastery. It could also potentially be used to help pay for portfolio assessments of previous academic or work experience, which can cost hundreds of dollars at some colleges. Even if the entire accreditation system isn’t blown to smithereens, a relatively modest change of allowing vetted prior learning assessment providers to accept federal aid would benefit students.

Proposal 4: Get outcome data into the hands of students and families. Florida has one of the most comprehensive education data systems in the country, allowing students and their families to access detailed data on earnings by field of study. The Bush proposal calls for each state to develop a similar system in order to provide outcome data to the public. However, given the way the pendulum has swung regarding student privacy (a substantial part of both the GOP and Democratic primary bases), it will be difficult to include incentives or sanctions that would encourage states to develop these databases. But even if such a proposal were to be adopted, it’s far from clear whether 50 separate databases would make more sense from a logistical or privacy perspective than a federal College Scorecard with program-level data.

Proposal 5: Reform the student loan repayment system. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to be moving toward a consensus that income-based repayment models (where loan payments are tied to a former student’s income and debt burden) are superior to the traditional 10-year fixed payment plan. Bush’s plan would make income-based repayment the only option for new borrowers, with payments equal to 1% of income per each $10,000 borrowed for up to 25 years, with the maximum lifetime payment being $17,500 per $10,000 borrowed. His proposal would also encourage current borrowers to shift into income-based repayment, which is currently a headache for many students. Although people will likely disagree with the exact terms Bush’s proposal sets forth, the general principles match up with conservative proposals as well as President Obama’s REPAYE program.

Although Gov. Bush is badly lagging in the polls, his campaign’s higher education proposals are serious, generally well-considered (although lacking for most details), and represent an important starting point for federal higher education policy discussions. Given that large infusions of federal funds into higher education are unlikely regardless of who becomes the next President, some pieces in the Bush plan (such as increased flexibility in how students use Pell Grants) are worth considering as low-cost plans that have the potential to positively impact students. Other ideas (such as risk sharing) sound promising in principle, but have the potential to do harm if they are improperly implemented. But even if the Bush campaign doesn’t make it past the first few primary states, many of the ideas included in the plan should be strongly considered by other candidates.

Should States Offer Student Loan Refinancing Programs?

As outstanding student loan debt has roughly tripled in the past decade to reach $1.2 trillion, many people have pushed for measures that would reduce the repayment burden on former students. In the last few years, there were efforts to stop subsidized student loan interest rates from doubling (which were largely successful) and more generous income-based repayment programs on federal loans, as well as efforts for tuition-free and/or debt-free public college that have taken center stage in the Democratic presidential primary.

The latest effort to reduce debt burdens has been allowing students to refinance their student loan debt at a lower rate. Private companies such as SoFi and Earnest are expected to refinance between $10 billion and $20 billion in loans in the next few years, primarily of well-paid professionals who are extremely unlikely to default on their obligations. (By doing this, loans become private—so this isn’t a great idea for people who would qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.) But for people who have lots of debt and a steady job, refinancing can save tens of thousands of dollars.

Spurred by the #InTheRed hashtag on Twitter and support from some leading Democrats, the next move is to consider allowing all students to refinance their loans through the government. Any legislation in Congress to do so is unlikely to go anywhere with Republican control and concerns about increasing the deficit. As a result, efforts have moved to the state level, with at least seven states having adopted refinancing plans for some loans and others considering plans. But is this a good policy to explore?

While states are free to do whatever they want—particularly if they issued the loans instead of the federal government—I view state refinancing efforts as an inefficient way to help struggling borrowers. Sue Dynarski at the University of Michigan sums up my concerns nicely in 140 characters:

Essentially, further subsidizing interest rates rewards borrowers with larger debt burdens (particularly those with graduate degrees who rarely default on loans) at the expense of students with debt but no degree represents a transfer of resources from lower-income to higher-income families. For a group that draws most of its support from the Left, supporting regressive taxation like this is rather surprising. Additionally, to keep the price tag down, some states are heavily restricting who can refinance and acting more like private companies. Minnesota, for example, will only allow graduates to refinance—and only in that case if they have a good credit score or a co-signer. This could potentially help keep some talented graduates in state, but the magnitude of the benefit is often outweighed by differences in income taxes, property taxes, or job offers across states.

I would encourage states to take whatever money they plan to use on refinancing loans and directing it toward grant aid for students from lower-income families who have stopped out of college and wish to return. Scarce resources should be directed toward getting students through college at a reasonable price instead of trying to make graduates’ payments slightly lower later on.