Grappling with Public College Pricing in a Covid World: NEBHE’s 2020-21 Tuition and Fees Report

By Sheridan Miller

In the 2020-21 academic year, the U.S. and New England saw a decline in higher education enrollment as students and families reckoned with job losses and the economic turmoil created by the coronavirus pandemic.

NEBHE’s recent report Published Tuition and Fees at Public Colleges and Universities in New England 2020-2021 unveils data about the ways that institutions tried to make college more affordable, while remaining economically viable, as students made the decision about whether to return to school in the fall of 2020 amid a still-raging pandemic.

While the implications of NEBHE’s Tuition and Fees report have always been significant, the pandemic-induced economic uncertainty adds new importance to these findings. This report provides a reference point for measuring the impact of Covid-19 on the price of higher education, as well as a reminder of the importance of state investment in higher education.

NEBHE’s 2020-21 report provides details on the published tuition and required fees (not reflecting charges such as room and board) of New England’s public two- and four- year colleges and universities. NEBHE presents this data alongside other important information, such as the average price of tuition in the region before and after student financial aid, historical Pell Grant trends, disaggregated enrollment and tuition data in each state and recent legislative actions to address the rising cost of higher education in New England. To shed light on college affordability over time, the report juxtaposes the 2020-21 data with the 2019-20 tuition and fee data, as well as uses a historical comparison of regional tuition information from 2010-11.

Tuition and fees are often viewed as the counterweight to state appropriations in funding public higher education. Historically, New England’s public tuitions have been relatively high, while its state appropriations have been relatively low, compared with the nation. Recently, both sources of funding have been strained by the financial impact of Covid-19.

Some key findings of NEBHE’s new report include:

  • The average annual price of in-state tuition and fees in New England, before financial aid, is $5,365 at public two-year institutions and $13,096 at public four-year institutions.
  • Between 2019-20 and the most recently available data from the 2020-21 academic year, average in-state tuition and fees have increased by 2.7% at both public two and four-year institutions.
  • Since 2010-11, the average in-state tuition and fees at public two- and four-year colleges in New England have increased by 36% and 48% respectively. Comparatively, the median household income in the region has increased by only 19% over the past 10 years.

While college prices for students in New England have risen in recent years, some public systems, in tandem with state legislatures in the region, have sought new ways to address the issue. The report highlights a few of the promising programs, bills or financial allocations either introduced or passed during the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions and academic years.

Public colleges in Connecticut 

For the 2020-21 year, the Connecticut Board of Regents, along with three other public systems in New England, voted to freeze tuition and fees as a way to try to help students during this difficult time. While this action was helpful in that it subtracted some potentially burdensome extra costs to students and families, freezes are also controversial, as they have the propensity not to benefit students equally, and can sometimes leave institutions short of money.

The University of Connecticut also decided to allocate much of its federal Covid-relief funding to help students with their tuition. In fact, 62% of applicants for financial aid at UConn got some sort of assistance. According to its website, UConn allocated $164 million through institutional aid, $37 million in federal assistance and $10 million in state-based assistance through loans, grants and scholarships.

Maine’s gubernatorial budget and system 

For the 2020-21 academic year, in-state students in the University of Maine System did not experience a tuition increase. In fact, this will be the seventh time in the past 10 years that the tuition has been held flat. In addition, Maine approved a $6 million (3%) increase in state funding to the UMaine System proposed by Gov. Janet Mills. This additional appropriation will help the system recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic. Additionally, Mills recently proposed providing $20 million to increase the maximum tuition award offered through the Maine State Grant program from $1,500 to $2,500.

Massachusetts legislative innovations

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees voted to freeze tuition rates for in-state undergraduate and graduate students in the 2020-21 academic year, despite the university’s budget being roughly $171 million less than the previous fiscal year and the fact that this reduced revenue by $18.6 million. Students in the system also received almost $1 billion in private, state, federal and university financial aid in 2020.

The Massachusetts Legislature also advocated for students and their families dealing with the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic in several ways. In 2019, Sen. Joanne Comerford proposed Bill S.741 (also known as the Cherish Act) which would add an additional $600 million in funding for public higher education, establish a minimum funding level for public higher education and freeze tuition and fees for five years. In December 2020, the Senate voted to establish a working group to determine the efficacy of this program. The act has a resounding number of advocates from all corners of the higher education landscape, from faculty to staff to students. Another piece of legislation, Bill S. 823 proposed by Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz, seeks to grant in-state tuition at public institutions to undocumented Massachusetts high school graduates.

Rhode Island Promise program

In May 2021, the Rhode Island Legislature approved the “Rhode Island Promisem,” and Gov. Dan McKee signed the bill into state law. This program allows graduates of Rhode Island high schools to attend the Community College of Rhode Island tuition-free. Not only does the Rhode Island Promise promote further equity in the state, but it also encourages students to stay in Rhode Island to earn an associate degree and above, bolstering the state’s economy. The University of Rhode Island was also granted $5.6 million in CARES act funding to provide directly to students as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sheridan Miller is NEBHE’s state policy engagement specialist.


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