Affordable Community College Options Are Shrinking. Here’s What Worries Experts

A recent analysis found that only 40% of public two-year institutions are affordable for a student receiving an average-sized Pell Grant.
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  • The number of affordable community colleges across the nation has dropped 10 percentage points over five academic years.
  • Meanwhile, the affordability gap rose from $246 to $907.
  • Experts say that government support of higher education and students' barriers to entry need to be addressed more adequately.

The number of affordable community college options is shrinking, a recent analysis revealed, and experts are concerned.

Between the 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 academic years, the national percentage of affordable public two-year institutions decreased by more than 10 percentage points, according to a new report from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN).

As of 2019-2020, only 40% of public two-year institutions are affordable to the average Pell Grant recipient.

NCAN defines an affordable institution as one whose total cost plus $300 does not exceed the sum of financial aid, family contributions, and student wages. When the cost does exceed this sum, the difference between the two numbers creates an affordability gap where there's an unmet need for financial assistance.

While the percentage of affordable public colleges continued to decrease during the five-year period, the affordability gap only rose.

Between 2015-2016 and 2019-2020, the affordability gap at community colleges nearly quadrupled from $246 to $907.

Across states, the number of affordable public two-year colleges has varied greatly. From 2015-2016 to 2019-2020, 18 states had fewer than five community colleges that were affordable by NCAN's standards.

Though community colleges are faring better than public four-year institutions with more affordable options, the steep drop in these options — and the rapidly rising affordability gap — is deeply concerning.

Community colleges are often considered a more affordable gateway to attaining a postsecondary education. But as fewer of these institutions remain affordable for low-income students, who are often students of color or other minorities, opportunity gaps increase.

"We expect a lot from community colleges," Raymond AlQaisi, the NCAN researcher who worked on the analysis, said in an interview with BestColleges. "Generally, they serve as open access institutions. For a sector … whose hallmark is accessibility, to see that less than half are affordable is really troubling."

Most community college students live within 60 miles from campus, AlQaisi explained, but if the schools in closest proximity to low-income students are unaffordable, those students will be presented with more challenges and barriers to entry.

But the situation is far more complex than that, according to higher education analyst and senior fellow with the Urban Institute, Sandy Baum.

"It's nice to have a simple definition of affordability, but that comes with limitations," she said. "... the situation is much more complicated … and it's important to look at how the resources available to students have changed over time."

Baum stresses that we need to take a closer look at how we finance education, how the government supports it, and how that government support is often inadequate.

AlQaisi agrees, stating that while collective stakeholders and policymakers want students to be able to attain their degrees and move on into the workforce, the actions they take to support students in doing so don't adequately address the challenges students face.

It's one of the reasons the value of proximity shouldn't be overlooked, AlQaisi said. Even if a state has multiple affordable institutions, it does not mean that all students will have access to them. Addressing transportation and housing concerns is one way to open up accessibility.

"Students are more likely to complete [school] if they are closer to campus," AlQaisi said. "They'll find it more convenient; they'll continue to attend classes; they won't stop out, and they'll graduate."

Overall, both AlQaisi and Baum agree that students should be better supported so they can attain their degrees because it will make us all better in the long run.

"The benefits of higher education accrue to students, but also to society at large," Baum said. "... If we don't make it possible for everyone to go to college, we as a society lose out tremendously."