The economic boom in the last decade of the 20th century has already been referred in some instant histories of the time as the “roaring 90s.”

A report released earlier this week by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reveals that the economy was not the only thing roaring in the 1990s. So were college tuition, and the amount of undergraduate borrowing done in order to meet those rising tuition costs.

According to A Decade of Undergraduate Student Aid: 1989/90 – 1999/2000, net tuition (a measure of tuition minus grants received) grew substantially in the 10-year period, indicating that grant increases did not keep pace with increases in tuition.

The percentage of students receiving some form of financial aid – grants, loans or work-study – increased from 60 percent at the start of the 90s to 74 percent at decade’s end. The greatest growth was the percentage of students taking out federal unsubsidized Stafford loans, which increased from only three percent in academic year (AY) 1989/90 to 23 percent in AY 1999/2000. Students from families of all income levels are eligible for unsubsidized loans, but until recent years very few students took out these loans.

Not surprisingly, for students who took out any loans, there was a dramatic 50 percent increase in amount borrowed over the course of the decade, up from $4000 in AY 1989/90 to $6000 in AY 1999/2000, and this measurement was taken utilizing constant 1999 dollars. The amount borrowed includes all loan sources combined: subsidized and unsubsidized federal, state, institutional and private.

As you probably know, federal Pell Grants are considered to be the foundational source of student grant aid, generally the grant of “first resort” provided when a school determines that a family is in need of support. Just under one-third of undergraduate students received Pell Grants at the beginning of the 1990s and exactly the same percentage were receiving Pell Grants at the end of the decade.

However, the proportion of students receiving state and/or institutional grants increased at nearly all of the institution types that were included in the NCES study, which were public 2-year; public 4-year; private, not-for-profit 4-year; and private, for-profit, less-than-4-year.

You may be thinking to yourself, why is College Parents of America sharing the results of a study that has data which is at least four years old? Unfortunately, that is the nature of education statistics, especially those gathered and published by the government.

Clearly, the anecdotal data of the years since 2000, as well as the scattered data published from various public and private sources, indicates that the roar of the 90s has increased in decibel level: tuition is continuing to go up at even higher levels (though there has been some evidence of retreat in the percentage increases this year) and the amount of student borrowing has skyrocketed, particularly from so-called “private loan” sources. And I don’t have to tell you that parent borrowing to meet the costs of college has also risen dramatically, with home equity and PLUS loans the biggest components of that increase.

Having spent more than 15 years in the television business, where research numbers from A.C. Nielsen were on our computer desktops the very next morning, I certainly long for some better “real-time” numbers when it comes to higher education. But I am playing the cards we are dealt, all the while pushing for the quicker release of better data.

I am happy to serve as a synthesizer of key data on your behalf, but I also realize that you may want, on occasion, to see all the numbers for yourself. To download, view and print this NCES report as a PDF file, please click here

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