Keeping Score: The Changing Demographics of Federal Aid Recipients

Last week, the Trump Administration continued the Obama-era effort to promote transparency in higher education by updating the College Scorecard data and even adding new features to make the information more useful. The ambitious nature of the Scorecard, which contains nearly 2000 metrics on thousands of colleges and universities over the last twenty years, makes it the best available tool to explore trends  in higher education.

For starters, nearly $30 billion in federal grants is awarded to  primarily low-income and disadvantaged students each year, and almost $100 billion is borrowed annually by students in federal loans. Scorecard data makes it possible to explore, in greater detail, which types of students receive this financial aid, where they attend school, and how these factors may have changed over the last decade.

aided students

Among students who receive any federal aid, the share falling into certain categories ( including veterans, married students, first-generation students, independent students, those who received federal Pell grants, and those who borrowed federal loans for their education) remained relatively consistent over the last decade. However, in the period immediately following the 2008 financial collapse provides some notable deviations from the norm. For one thing, the share of aided students who had ever received a Pell grant spiked during this time, before slowly leveling off after 2012. The share of aided students who are independent follows a similar trajectory.

These trends follow the same general pattern for students at different types of schools, though to differing extents. For example, the share of aided students at public two-year institutions who received Pell grants is relatively high before the recession; however, changes in Pell recipiency among this sector are much less pronounced, indicating that community colleges always served a needier population of students. Similarly, the changes are smallest among public four-year institutions. In contrast, students at four-year for-profit institutions actually had one of the lower rates of Pell receipt in 2002, climbing consistently both before and during the recession before jumping to claim the highest rate of any sector by 2010 as enrollment in those institutions spiked during the recession.

pell students

Zooming in on the most recent data, we can better see the variation in terms of enrollment patterns for several student subgroups and trends in federal student borrowing across sectors. Independent students, married students, veterans and those who receive Pell grants are a higher share of aided students at for-profit four-year institutions compared to other sectors. Nonprofit and for-profit four-year schools are virtually tied in terms of the share of aided students who borrow federal loans, with students at public two-year schools borrowing at much lower rates. Two-year schools across sectors all had much higher rates of enrollment among first-generation students, with public and nonprofit four-year schools each underrepresented in terms of enrollment among first-generation students.

aided students sector

The Scorecard data also allows for exploration of geographic variation in aid recipients’ likelihood of having particular backgrounds. Using the most recent year, with the exception of veteran students, the share in each category varies significantly according to the state of the school they attended. Some of these are unsurprising: the highest share of married students are enrolled in schools in Utah. Additionally, the highest share of first-generation students and the lowest share of students taking on federal loans are both claimed by California, a state notorious for keeping costs to students low through their CalGrant and other scholarship aid. Other trends are less intuitive: Nearly three-quarters of students in Maine were considered independents, while the same figure in North Dakota is just one in four.

aided by state

Underlying these differences in the share of students over time, across institutional sectors and over geographic regions are changes in the number of students who receive federal aid at all. According to Scorecard data, around 7 million students received federal aid in 2002, a number that rose steadily before peaking at the height of the recession at nearly 12 million students and finally tapering off in the recovery years.

Methodology: The College Scorecard reports percentages of Title IV students for each school in each of the categories used above. To generate sector and state-level aggregates, we multiply each by its associated group size, sum all observations in a particular state or sector, and then divide by the aggregated denominator. For sector groupings, we combine less than two-year schools with two-year schools. Data are downloaded using the RScorecard Package created by Benjamin Skinner.


Kim Dancy is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She works with the higher education team, where she conducts original research and data analysis on higher education issues, including federal funding for education programs.