Colloquia: Trends in Higher Education 2020

College tuition and fees rose at a smaller rate this year than they have in several decades. That was the biggest news from this year’s edition of Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid.

It’s hard to call the historically low rate of increase good news, however. It reflects the hard economic realities facing students and colleges this year. At the same time that universities and colleges are facing sharp declines in revenue, many families are struggling, which took tuition hikes off the table at many institutions as a way to recover from losses caused by campus closures last spring and declining enrollments this fall.

Policy research scientists Jennifer Ma and Matea Pender joined Jessica Howell, Vice President of Research at the College Board, for this colloquium at the 2020 College Board Forum. Ma and Pender are co-authors of the Trends report, along with CJ Libassi.

This year’s report appears at a precarious moment, as Howell acknowledged at the start of the session. “The COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on higher education institutions,” she said, “whether that’s related to enrollment, tuition revenue, campus opening status, or instructional approaches.”

All three panelists pointed out that the pandemic is affecting not only tuition but also student aid. Thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, more popularly known as the CARES Act, nearly 70% of all outstanding federal direct loans were in forbearance as of June 30, 2020, compared to 10% of loans a year ago. “Research will eventually tell us how much these measures helped students and the institutions they attend,” Howell said. The data in the Trends report can, she added, “create a context for evaluating public policies designed to increase educational opportunities, and these reports have become an important voice in discussions around postsecondary education policy.”

Ma and Pender highlighted two other key data points from the Trends report. First, grant aid has been growing slowly since 2010-11, which has helped keep net prices (the amount students actually pay on average, in contrast to the “sticker price” for tuition and fees) stable over the past decade. Second, despite much of the heated rhetoric about the explosion in student debt in the popular media, total annual borrowing continues on its ninth consecutive year of decline from a peak in 2010-11.

The big question of the day was also the hardest to answer:  what does the future hold? Ma said that during the Great Recession of 2008, state funding of public education declined as enrollments went up, and while it’s likely that funding will decrease again--cuts have already taken place in some states--this time might be different if enrollments do not increase. As a result, the cut to spending per full-time equivalent enrollment might be smaller. It was an apt conclusion to the panel. The chance that the bad news will not be as bad as it could be is what counts as good news right now.