When Financial Aid Falls Short: The Ongoing Problem of Unmet Need

In a recent report, researchers from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) found that over 70% of community college students have unmet need averaging roughly $5,000.

Traditionally underrepresented groups– such as people of color and low-income, parenting, working, first-generation, or immigrant students – are increasingly pursuing postsecondary education. Public policies, however, have failed to keep pace with rising college costs and the needs of these students. As a result, an increasing number of students, including those attending community college, are left with unmet financial need, which is the difference between the cost of attendance and all student resources that don’t need to be repaid, such as scholarships, grant aid, and a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

In a recent CLASP paper, I analyzed U.S. Department of Education data from academic year 2015-16 and found that 71 percent of community college students have unmet need averaging $4,920. Students of color and low-income students are both more likely to have unmet need and to have more significant amounts of it. Further, unmet need among college students has risen 23 percent since academic year 2011-12.

Unmet Need is Consistently Highest for Students of Color

Unmet need can be considered a rough measure of our nation’s underinvestment in students that highlights the gap between expectations of affordability and reality. Nearly three in four students experience unmet need, making it practically a universal phenomenon among today’s students.

Students may face increased material hardship like food or housing insecurity as a result of their unmet need. And when they have difficulties making ends meet, it may cause them to reduce the number of courses they take or drop or stop out altogether.

At community colleges, the average unmet need for students in the lowest income quartile[1] is $6,900. This figure ranges by students’ race/ethnicity, with Asian-American students having the highest amount of unmet need at $8,500 and all other races/ethnicities ranging between $6,700 and $7,100 in unmet need. Asian-American students consistently have the greatest amounts of unmet need no matter the type of institution they attend. CLASP published a blog post that hypothesizes a few reasons why that might be.

However, the likelihood of having unmet varies by race. More than 8 in 10 Black community college students have unmet need. This is 10 percentage points higher than the average for all community college students and 15 percentage points higher than the rate for white community college students.


Student unmet financial need is a symptom of a larger college affordability problem, as well as broader societal and economic barriers that students face before, during, and after college.

Community colleges can play a role in advocating for more federal and state investment in public institutions and need-based aid programs. Federal programs include those aimed at reducing costs to students and institutions—such as Title IV grant programs and aid to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) through Title III of the Higher Education Act. States should restore funding for postsecondary education and prioritize investments in need-based state aid programs that, include all students and enrollment patterns and strategically target awards to students with unmet need.

Better still, federal and state governments should design and implement free college programs that prioritize students who have the most unmet need and provide them the resources needed for success. Policymakers should also support tuition equity and state-funded financial aid for undocumented immigrant students who complete high school (or its equivalent) and attend college in-state.

In CLASP’s recent framework for low-income working adults, we recommend that states center equity and diversity in state higher education plans by working to close equity gaps and target supports to historically underserved groups. States should consider unmet need when developing these plans and recognize how doing so can address equity gaps.

Institutions should examine how equity gaps look across their campus(es) and develop action plans to close them. They should also capitalize on under-utilized resources, such as those provided through the Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision. Finally, institutions should connect eligible students to public benefits programs (like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and work with their state to more flexibly interpret federal law to better align these programs with college attendance.

When policymakers don’t address unmet need, college becomes increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible for all students, but particularly students of color. Equitable access to postsecondary education that is both affordable and high-quality is essential to creating a productive and dynamic economy.

Lauren Walizer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the CLASP, Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success. She can be reached at

[1] Dependent students with incomes below $27,000 and independent students with incomes below $7,200.

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