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Due largely to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the national average tuition and fee “sticker” price for full-time undergraduates attending four-year public colleges and universities grew just 1.1 percent between academic year 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education 2020 report. This current-dollar increase in tuition and fee price is the lowest reported by the College Board since 1990-91.


While tuition price increases slowed, the amount of grant aid increased slightly, and the amount of new loans students took out to attend postsecondary institutions dropped by nearly 4 percent from 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Tuition Prices and Grant Aid Increased Slowly

While the national average tuition and fee price for in-state tuition and fees rose 1.1 percent, the increase varied widely among states, with 10 states either freezing or cutting their prices. Tuition increases also slowed at private, nonprofit four-year institutions. The national average published prices increased by 2.1 percent in 2020-21, compared with 3.4 percent the previous year.


The percentage change in tuition and fee prices was essentially matched by an increase in the total amount of grant aid available to support all postsecondary students. Total grant aid from all sources increased from about $138 billion in 2018-19 to $140 billion in 2019-20 (the most recent year of available data). Institutional grants accounted for almost half the total grant awards. On average, with grants and tuition prices increasing by roughly the same amount, the net price students paid to attend their institutions (tuition and fees minus grants) was essentially unchanged.  

Students are Borrowing Less

College attendees also took out smaller amounts of student loans, as total the amount borrowed under federal and nonfederal student loan programs declined from about $106 billion in 2018-19 to $102 billion in 2019-20. Borrowing has been dropping for nearly a decade, especially among undergraduates. From 2009-10 to 2019-20, the total amount of loans taken by undergraduates fell from $79.9 billion to $50.3 billion. In 2018-19, the average undergraduate borrower left school with about $28,800 in student loan debt, down from $28,900 in 2013-14.


Trends in Higher Education 2020 is available from the College Board's website.


Ken Redd

Senior Director, Research and Policy Analysis


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