Colleges hold the line on tuition, fees in 2021-22 as COVID-19 factors in

Even room and board remained somewhat steady, except at private non-profit four-year institutions.
By: | October 28, 2021
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Institutions of higher education kept their tuition and fees below the rate of inflation this year, a direct result of the pandemic, falling enrollment numbers and the need to remain affordable and accessible for all students.

According to the new Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report released by the College Board, the three sectors—public and private nonprofits and community colleges—kept costs from rising further by virtually holding steady on their prices for 2021-22. At community colleges, that meant a nominal $50 increase, while at public four-year institutions it was $170.

“This year’s data underscore the significant impact COVID-19 has had on higher education,” said Jessica Howell, College Board’s vice president for research. Howell and other study authors added in their report, “As a result, average tuition and fees declined across after adjusting for inflation.”

How low were the percentage increases across the board for students? They were less than 2% for in-district students at two-year institutions (1.3%) and for all students at public four-year colleges and universities (1.5%). Rates at private nonprofit four-years jumped only 2.1%. The rate of inflation from January to August was 3.9%.

Many colleges, understanding the impact of COVID-19 and the potential for losses and impacts on underserved students, decided not to boost their rates.

“Some institutions and states are holding tuition and fees flat this year,” said Jennifer Ma, senior policy research scientist at College Board and coauthor of the report. “In 15 states, the average public two-year in-district tuition and fees did not increase in 2021-22. In three states, the average public four-year in-state tuition and fees did not increase.”

Inside the numbers

Higher education lost a total of 700,000 students in 2020-21, continuing a downward overall trend since 2019 but most notably impacting the smallest institutions, especially community colleges. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported their preliminary data for 2021-22 showing a 3.2% decline. Any losses in enrollment have a huge impact on financial health since it is the top revenue source for most institutions.

Despite most reopening fully in 2020-21, the potential for bigger losses from the lingering COVID-19 drove college to maintain the status quo at least for one more year on tuition and fees:

  • Four-year public institutions (in-state): $10,740 ($10,570 in 2020-21)
  • Four-year public institutions (out-of-state): $27,560 ($27,150 in 2020-21)
  • Four-year private nonprofit institutions: $38,070 ($37,270 in 2020-21)
  • Two-year institutions (Full-time in-district): $3,800 ($3,750 in 2020-21)

Data was not available for for-profit institutions, whose tuition and fees were roughly $15,000 in 2020-21.

Some states have done better than others for two-year and four-year public institutions, with Florida (-11%), North Carolina, Calfiornia, Arizona, Wisconsin and Hawaii all showing significant declines in cost for tuition and fees.

A key factor in affordability for students and the overall value of postsecondary education are other costs, namely room and board. Those inched up only slightly at two-year and four-year publics, but ballooned at private non-profit institutions by an average of $1,100 for 2021-22. When families start to add everything up, that $10,740 price tag at four years grows to more than $27,000, while at private nonprofits, it’s more than $55,000. Those overall totals are more than twice as high adjusted for inflation, for example, at public four-year colleges than they were 20 years ago.

A critical offset for students are aid and scholarships. Institutional aid has risen some 56% over the past decade. Unfortunately, Pell Grant dollars have fallen 39% over that same stretch. Colleges and universities that had more Pell Grant-eligible students received a windfall of support from the federal government from the CARES Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) this past year, totaling nearly $75 billion.

But the College Board said it is unclear how much of an impact that will have on colleges and universities and those they serve.

“Our analysis indicates that institutions with higher shares of Pell Grant recipients received more funding per student than institutions with lower shares of Pell recipients,” said Matea Pender, policy research scientist at College Board and coauthor of the report.

Total undergraduate aid has fallen steadily since 2010-11 from a high of $218 billion to $175 billion. The result, which may or may not be connected, is that enrollment has fallen 13% in that stretch.