The College Board’s 2021 Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report showed that average published tuition and fee prices (sticker prices) experienced small increases, while net prices and undergraduate borrowing declined. These trends should be interpreted within the context of other trends impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as enrollment declines, trends in state and local funding, and funding received through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF).
In 2020-21, many institutions froze or only slightly increased published tuition and fee prices. Before adjusting for inflation, average sticker prices increased by 1.6 percent for in-state students at public four-year institutions, 1.3 percent for in-district students at public two-year colleges, and 2.1 percent for students at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities. These increases are lower than the inflation rate (Consumer Price Index), meaning sticker prices declined across the three sectors when adjusted for inflation.
In 2021-22, the College Board projects that average tuition and fee net prices—what students and their families must pay after grant aid is subtracted—will have declined in all three sectors, reaching new trend lows. Since 2009-10, first-time, full-time students at public two-year colleges have been receiving enough grant aid to cover tuition and fees; this trend continued in 2021-22. For first-time, full-time in-state students attending public four-year institutions, average net tuition and fee prices dropped to a record low in 2021-22 at an estimated $2,640. The average net tuition and fees for first-time, full-time students at private nonprofit four-year institutions also reached its lowest, an estimated $14,990, in 2021-22.
In 2020-21, undergraduate and graduate students received a total of $234.9 billion in student aid in the form of federal loans and tax credits, and federal, state, institutional, and private and employer grants. When looking only at grant aid—money students do not have to pay back—$138.6 billion was awarded to students in 2020-21. Institutional grants made up the majority of dollars awarded ($71.1 billion, or 51 percent of total grant aid).
Total federal loans to undergraduates declined by 46 percent ($38.6 billion in 2020 dollars) between 2010-11 and 2020-21. This means, on average, undergraduates are borrowing $1,030 less (in 2020 dollars) than they were in 2010-11.
In 2019-20, 55 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients from public and private nonprofit four-year institutions graduated with debt, and had an average debt level of $28,400. As of March 2021, over half of borrowers with outstanding education debt owed less than $20,000.