College Affordability: The Price of Public Higher Education in New England

By Stephanie M. McGrath

Tuition and fees across New England have risen by 16% ($734) at community colleges and 10% ($1,001) at four-year public institutions since 2012-13, according to NEBHE’s 2017-18 Tuition and Fees Report.

The report, published annually by NEBHE’s Policy & Research team, takes an in-depth look at the tuition and required fees published by public two- and four-year postsecondary institutions across New England. It explores emerging trends by providing a historical analysis of tuition and fees in the region to shed light on college prices, as well as legislative and institutional initiatives that seek to address affordability challenges.

In New England and across the U.S., it has never been more critical to hold a postsecondary credential to be able to fully participate in the workforce and earn a sustainable wage. Roughly 90% of the jobs available in four of the nation’s five fastest growing occupational clusters require some form of education beyond high school, according to research at the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. The same study estimates that 63% of all jobs available nationwide in 2018 require a postsecondary degree. As a result, employers will need approximately 22 million new employees with a postsecondary degree.

However, in recent years the cost of a college degree has risen precipitously resulting in rising tuition and fee charges–often prohibitively expensive for far too many Americans to attend college. As postsecondary education becomes increasingly important for the vitality of New England’s economy and its workforce, the growing cost of higher education has garnered substantial critical attention from the public and from policymakers. New England’s public colleges continue to be the most affordable and financially accessible option for most individuals in the region. Their primary mission is to serve their state’s residents. Tuition and fees at public colleges are of particular interest to both students and state policymakers.

Among other key findings in the NEBHE report:

  • From 2015 to 2016, enrollment at New England’s public colleges and universities declined by 1.8%, or 8,036 fewer undergraduates — a trend that is expected to continue in years to come due to a projected 14% decline in the number of new high school graduates in New England by 2032.
  • On average, in 2017-18, the federal Pell Grant covers approximately 49% of tuition and fees at four-year institutions for students in the lowest income quintile ($0-$30,000 annual household income).
  • Since 2012-13, increases in tuition and fees at New England’s two-year colleges (16%) and four-year institutions (10%) have outpaced increases in the maximum Pell Grant (6.25%), leaving a widening gap for low- and moderate-income families to offset with additional aid and/or family resources.

These trends are putting pressure on institutions and systems to find creative solutions to ensure that college is affordable for students, maintain enrollment and meet the needs of regional employers, who increasingly demand workers with postsecondary credentials.

In Massachusetts, a state known for its high in-state tuition prices, Gov. Charlie Baker announced in his 2018 State of the Commonwealth Address that the Bay State will increase college scholarship funding by $7 million so that the state’s lowest-income community college students with an unmet financial need can have the remaining balance of their tuition and fees fully covered.

Connecticut passed legislation during its 2018 session to allow undocumented students who attend one of its public colleges and universities the opportunity to qualify for the state’s financial aid. Previously, these students were not granted access to the financial aid system by state law but had been offered in-state tuition.

The University of Maine System launched a promise initiative in which, beginning in fall 2018, first-year Maine students who qualify for a federal Pell Grant are able to attend the University of Maine campuses at Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Augusta, and Machias free of having to pay any out-of-pocket tuition and fees. Beneficiaries of the initiative must commit to take a minimum of 30 credit hours each academic year and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. As of October 2018, the initiative has resulted in a 2.5% increase in enrollment at these institutions over the previous year.

Click below to view individual state data used in the report:

Stephanie M. McGrath is NEBHE’s policy & research analyst.



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