Admissions and Financial Aid Practices at Community Colleges

I realized after writing about the financial aid practices at Ivy Plus universities, elite non-Ivy Plus colleges and universities, HBCUs, and large state universities, that there was a distinctive group of colleges that I had left out.

Community colleges are widely known for their low tuition. At the same time, my findings had surfaced a surprising revelation (to me) that financial aid practices for the first four income quintiles (from lowest to highest) did not always result in a low net price for the lowest income students.

For my analysis, I checked previous sources like U.S. News & World Report, but opted to begin with a top 50 ranking from College Consensus. I realized that College Consensus might be a lead aggregator, but the distribution of community colleges ranked appeared to spread across states as well as include various enrollment sizes.

I accessed the same data from College Navigator that I incorporated into my previous analyses of the Ivy Plus universities, elite non-Ivy Plus private colleges and universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and major public universities.

During that process, I found that College Navigator did not have data for one of the top 50 community colleges ranked by College Consensus, so I substituted Austin Community College to keep the analysis at 50.

Profiles of community colleges selected

 In Table 1 below, I list the institutions, their total and undergraduate enrollments (which were the same), in-state and out-of-state tuition and fees, estimated textbook costs, room and board, and other costs, in-state and out-of-state costs of attendance, and the percentage of students admitted.

I used the lowest tuition (in-district or in-state) for the in-state tuition where both were listed. Since very few community colleges offer rooms on campus, I used the costs for living at home with a family for both in-state and out-of-state students. In a few cases where no tuition for out-of-state students was listed on College Navigator, I used the in-state tuition.

The mean undergraduate enrollment for the group is 9,475 and the median is 7,223. The highest undergraduate enrollment of 51,896 belongs to Northern Virginia Community College. The lowest undergraduate enrollment belongs to Northwestern Connecticut Community College with 1,149.

The mean in-state tuition is $3,728 and the mean out-of-state tuition is $8,652. In-state tuition ranges from a low of $1,150 at Saddleback College to a high of $$7,440 at State Technical College of Missouri. Out-of-state tuition ranges from a low of $3,312 at Southeast Community College to a high of $14,220 at Capital Community College.

The mean cost of attendance (COA) is $11,979 for in-state students and is $16,903 for out-of-state students. The COA for in-state students ranges from a low of $6,448 at Butte College to a high of $27,050 at Shoreline Community College. The COA for out-of-state students ranges from a low of $10,384 at Santa Fe Community College to a high of $30,262 at Orange Coast College.

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Funding composition of students

Table 2 provides an overview of the relative funding composition of the community colleges as well as the admissions selectivity. In all cases, these community colleges have an open enrollment policy. All of them had an admissions line to call to clarify their open enrollment policies. A few had a caveat that some specific healthcare programs may require testing for admission (likely nursing).

The percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen who do not receive aid ranges from a high of 57% at Anne Arundel Community College to a low of 0% at the City College of San Francisco, Butte College, the North Dakota State College of Science, Southeast Community College, State Technical College of Missouri, and Lake Area Technical College. The mean for no-aid freshmen is 19% and the median is 20%.

As mentioned in previous articles, it is important to note that the no-aid percentage only applies to first-time, full-time freshmen while the other percentages used (grants, Pell, loans) apply to all students.

The mean percentage of students who borrow federal loans at community colleges is 12% (median is 7%). That is very close to the mean (10%) and median (7%) for students at Ivy Plus institutions who borrow federal loans. This contrasts with the mean (53%) and median (58%) of students at HBCUs who borrow federal loans, the mean (25%) and median (24%) of students at non-Ivy Plus elite private institutions who borrow federal loans, and the mean (30%) and median (28%) of students at major public universities who borrow federal loans.

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Grants awarded

College Navigator’s definition of grants “includes aid awarded from the federal government, state or local government, the institution, and other sources known by the institution.” Although Pell grants are separately listed by College Navigator, they are also included in the grants column. Given that at least 20 states offer “free tuition programs” at community colleges, these grants should be included in the grant numbers as well.

Table 3 lists the number of undergraduates, the number of undergraduates receiving grant aid, the percentage of undergraduates with grant aid, the total amount of grant aid awarded, and the average grant aid per student. I think it’s particularly important to know that community college students could have Federal grants (Pell), state grants, county grants or “district” grants. All of them should be included in this category.

The mean percentage of undergraduates receiving grant aid is 50% and the median is 48%. The highest percentage of students receiving grant aid is 94% at the City College of San Francisco. The lowest percentage of students receiving grant aid is 23% at Johnson County Community College.

The highest average grant of $16,510 was received by undergraduates at Northern Virginia Community College. The lowest average grant of $605 was received by students at Kauai Community College.

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Pell Grants

The numbers and percentages of students receiving Pell grants as well as the average Pell grant are listed in Table 4. With a mean of 24% and a median of 23% of undergraduates receiving Pell grants, the gap varies from a high of 51% at Capital Community College and a low of 10% at The College of San Mateo. The mean Pell grant for these 50 institutions is $3,884 and the median Pell grant is $3,809.

The mean Pell grant per student is lower than all the other categories (Ivy Plus, Elite non-Ivy Plus, HBCU, and Major Public Universities for which the mean Pell grants range between $4,900 and $5,100). The likely explanation is that a larger percentage of community college students are not full-time students which would reduce the maximum Pell grant based on the percentage of credits taken (50%, 75%, or 100%).

Pell grants at community collegesPell grants at community colleges


It’s important to repeat from my previous articles that the average loan amount is calculated from the federal loans funded to all undergraduate students at each community college for the most recent year. It is much more difficult to determine what a cumulative loan amount might be for a community college student since community colleges have a much lower percentage of full-time students than the other four groups of colleges analyzed.

It’s also important to note that the federal loan amounts listed are to the student only. Loans disbursed to parents through the Parent Plus program are not included. No state or private loans are included either.

The mean percentage of students attending the selected community colleges who borrow federal loans is 12%. The median is 7%. Lake Area Technical College has the highest percentage of students who borrow (61%), and Pasadena City College has the lowest percentage of students who borrow (.3%). The reason that the median percentage varies from the mean by 5% appears to be because 13 California community colleges were selected for the group. The highest loan percentage for these 13 schools is 2.6% and most are less than 1%.

The mean loan is $5,505 and the median loan is $5,729. Loans range from an average of $7,621 at Cerritos College to a low of $1,754 at Southeast Community College.

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Average Net Price

Average Net Price by income quintile continues to be the most interesting data that I surfaced during the review and analyses of the five different groups of colleges and universities. The College Navigator definition is “average net price is generated by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attendance.” They also use the lower of in-state or in-district cost of attendance for public institutions.

I changed Table 6 from previous analyses. I removed the number of undergraduates and added the Cost of Attendance (COA) for In-State students and Out-of-State students. Table 6 also includes the average net price for the community college, and the average net price broken out by the five family income ranges specified by the Department of Education. Institutions report this data based on FAFSA forms submitted to them for financial aid evaluation.

Given that the net price must be paid in cash or from loan proceeds, the findings surfaced for the lower three income quintiles have surprised me. As you will see, net price is even more interesting for community colleges since most of them do not have dormitories which meant that the specified costs to live at home (much lower than on campus) were utilized for the majority of the 50 colleges selected.

The mean for the COA for In-State students is $11,979 and the mean for the COA for Out-of-State students is $16,903. The mean for the average net price is $9,456. On the surface, the gap between the means of COA and average net price is not that significant. What surprised me was the average net price by income quintile.

Given that community colleges are the U.S.’s lowest tuition options, the fact that the average net price for the lowest two income quintiles was $7,557 and $8,208 surprised me (remember, Pell grants are included in the federal grants that are subtracted from COA to arrive at net price). It’s my opinion that families earning between $0 and $30,000 and between $30,001 and $48,000 cannot afford to pay anything for college. Borrowing is their only option since they likely have $0 savings.

There are at least 20 states with programs that cover community college tuition. Some of those programs are for adults (24 and older), but some are for traditional age students. Nonetheless, covering tuition and books only does not meet the needs of lower income students based on these statistics.

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Summary Thoughts

I began my analyses with a review of the Ivy Plus institutions’ financial aid practices after the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in college admissions. I had read about the no-loan financial aid policies at most of these institutions for families with incomes below an amount like $150,000. Using data from College Navigator, I could see that either the large endowment balances from these highly selective institutions or the high percentage of no-aid students were keeping the net price very low for the first three income quintiles. Even the mean for the fourth quintile was relatively low compared to the net price for the highest quintile.

Ivy Plus Institutions

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After a challenge from a colleague to look at other elite private institutions, I selected non-Ivy Plus private institutions ranked in the U.S. News & World Report Top 50 National Universities and Top 50 Liberal Arts Colleges. I eliminated three colleges whose application acceptance rates exceeded 50%. The result of that analysis is in the table below.

It’s obvious that there is a big difference between total cost of attendance (COA) and average net price for these elite private institutions, just not as much as the difference between total COA and average net price for the 12 Ivy Plus institutions.

The higher average net price for most of these institutions impacts the average net price for the lower income quintiles. Whereas the mean average net prices for the lowest three quintiles were $3,117; $2,518; and $6,490 for the Ivy Plus, the means for the three lowest quintiles for the elites who are not Ivy Plus were $10,767; $11,000; and $15,244. There were several institutions (Washington & Lee and Washington University in St. Louis) that had significantly lower net prices in the first three quintiles.

Elite Private Colleges and Universities (not including Ivy Plus)

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HBCUs were my next group of colleges and universities to analyze, primarily due to the percentages of minority and lower income students that they enroll. The summary data related to net pricing is in the table below. One of the items that I noted is that using the list of all HBCUs incorporated public and private universities as well as public community colleges. I thought about reanalyzing the data but opted to leave the group intact for now.

As you can see from the data, the mean COA for HBCUs is substantially less than the mean COA for elite non-Ivy Plus institutions as well as the mean COA for Ivy Plus institutions. At the same time, while the overall average net price for HBCUs is lower than the overall average net price for the Ivy Plus and the non-Ivy Plus elites, the average net price in the lowest income quintiles is higher.

I don’t believe that this finding is a mistake. After several discussions with friends in the enrollment management and higher ed consulting business as well as with two individuals at the Department of Education, I believe that institutions with large endowments and/or wealthy students can subsidize the net price for students in the lowest income quintiles. Institutions with fewer financial resources cannot. Sadly, those are the institutions that many lower income students can attend.

I want to also note that the high average net price of $37,085 is less than the high average net price for all the income quintiles. I believe that Howard University did not report the correct net price for each of their quintiles.

During a discussion with one of my Department of Education connections, I learned that the data in the NCES system is a year older than the current data published on College Navigator and undergoes a thorough audit process. I hope the Howard University data is corrected during that process.

HBCUs Summary – Average Net Price

net price by incomenet price by income

After analyzing data from the HBCUs, I decided to look at the same data from major (aka large) public universities. I selected all the public universities with more than 20,000 students unless it was the largest public university in the state. My reasoning for that selection is that the largest public institutions should also be the most efficient from an economic perspective.

With this group, it’s important to remember that the Department of Education uses the In-state or In-district COA as the basis for the Net Price even though there are some public institutions (like West Virginia University) who enroll more than 50 percent of their undergraduates from out-of-state. When looking at the average net price, that number should be compared to the In-state COA to compare “apples-to-apples.”

While the average net price of major state universities is larger than the HBCUs, it’s important to remember that there are some community colleges in the HBCU group while none are included in the major state universities. It’s also important to note that the average net price for the lowest three quintiles is lower for the major state universities than it is for the HBCUs. Given that there are private non-profit HBCUs mixed with public HBCUs, this is not a surprise.

Again, my biggest surprise is that the largest public universities have not brought the average net price per student down to an affordable level like the Ivy Plus colleges.

Major State Universities – Average Net Price

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It would have been impossible to conduct these analyses without looking at community colleges. Community colleges educate more students than any other group in the U.S. and have the lowest published tuition and fees. In the table below, you can see the summary of Cost of Attendance as compared with average net price and average net price per income quintile.

It is no surprise that the average net price for the selected community colleges is lower than any of the four other groupings of colleges and universities. The average net price for the three lowest income quintiles is lower than all the other groups except the Ivy Plus group. Despite having the highest Cost of Attendance, the large endowment balances and numbers of full-pay students at Ivy Plus institutions are enabling them to offer a lower net price for lower income students than any other group including community colleges.

Based on numbers only, higher income families would benefit the most financially by sending their children to community colleges since the average net price for students in the highest income quintile is the lowest of all the groupings of colleges.

Community Colleges – Average Net Price

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What surprised me the most after conducting these reviews and analyses is that the most selective and wealthiest institutions have the lowest average net price for the three lowest income quintiles. I don’t believe that any of the other four groupings of institutions offer an affordable average net price for students whose families’ incomes are in the lowest three income quintiles. Borrowing is not the answer even though Congress has made it easy for students to borrow through federal loans.

To solve the college affordability problem, Congress will have to increase Pell grants, states will have to increase their subsidies of public education, and all but the wealthiest institutions will have to figure out how to operate more efficiently and lower their costs of attendance. This won’t happen overnight.

Until the cost of college decreases to the level of reasonableness for the poorest families in our country, we will continue to see lower persistence and higher dropout rates for lower income students. It’s no wonder that families struggling to make ends meet would be skeptical of the benefits of sending their children to college. College isn’t affordable, particularly for the poorest families. Educational outcomes aren’t the biggest issue for lower income college students; financial survival is.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence