The pandemic, college affordability, and student debt

November 2020

COVID-19 has exacerbated systemic and institutional impediments that underlie equity disparities on campus, and higher education institutions are taking steps to support incoming and current students.


The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) is conducting research funded by the TIAA Institute to identify and strengthen the evidence for innovative financial aid strategies designed to improve affordability and reduce student debt for large numbers of students. Ten institutions have been selected as “Affordability Fellows” to help investigate financial aid innovations and establish long-term solutions that address the pandemic and a changing landscape. This is the first in a series of planned reports.

Key Insights
The harsh economic realities and disparities that low-income, first-generation, and students of color and their families have long contended with in the U.S. have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
National economic surveys highlight the need for higher education leaders to become critically aware of the structural barriers to affordable education that disadvantaged students encounter.
Transformational efforts through an equity-focused framework are required to remove university-level impediments that exacerbate inequities.
A “Targeted Universalism” framework can help universities implement equity-forward strategies that recognize students’ lived realities and provide ample opportunities for an affordable education.

The researchers conducted qualitative research on financial aid at 10 universities participating in APLU’s Powered by Publics Initiative. Forthcoming briefs will address the distribution of CARES Act funding to Title IV students, financial innovations at Fellow institutions, and re-envisioning financial aid solutions through an equity lens focused on vulnerable students.


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