National Postsecondary Student Aid Study

Data about how students pay for college

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

Higher education is a vital component of the lives and careers of millions of Americans. As the source of many grants and loans for students, the federal government has an interest in understanding how Americans pay for college.

Since 1987, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education, has kept track of the portfolio of grants, loans, personal savings, and other sources that students and families use to finance postsecondary education—uncovering important trends that influence college enrollment, completion, and labor market outcomes. This study, which now takes place every four years, is known as the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, or NPSAS.

RTI has conducted NPSAS and its related longitudinal studies—the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study—since 1996.

Managing a Complex Study across Changes in Population and Technology

The ongoing edition of NPSAS, which covers the 2015-2016 academic year, includes approximately 100,000 undergraduates and 20,000 graduate students across 1,700 colleges and universities. We survey the students through both web and phone questionnaires, matching these data with records collected from institutions, data from federal financial aid systems, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and other sources.

Technological shifts, including the move to a web-based, mobile-optimized student survey, have enabled us to keep pace with our target population. We have also demonstrated flexibility in working with the colleges and universities in our sample, allowing them to submit data in multiple formats. Overall, the study has grown in depth and breadth, as the sample has increased and we collect data from more sources, all with an eye toward adding detail and improving the quality of results for our client.

As our partnership with NCES continues, we are adding and planning new dimensions for NPSAS. In NPSAS:16, we expanded data collected on military participation in higher education. In 2018, we will launch a new round of institution data collection, providing more frequent information on students’ strategies for paying for college.

Understanding College Financing

As we conduct the 2016 round of NPSAS, we are releasing some findings from NPSAS:12, which covered the 2011-2012 academic year, including

  • Seventy-one percent of all undergraduates received some type of financial aid from federal, state, institutional, and other sources. Fifty-nine percent received grants, 42 percent took out student loans, 6 percent received aid through work-study jobs, 4 percent received veterans’ benefits, and 5 percent had parents who took out federal Direct PLUS Loans.
  • Among undergraduates who received any aid, the average total amount was $10,800. The average total grant amount for grant recipients was $6,200, and borrowers took out an average of $7,100 in student loans. Recipients of veterans’ benefits received an average of $7,500 in benefits. Among undergraduates whose parents took out federal Direct PLUS Loans, the average amount borrowed was $12,100.
  • Seventy percent of graduate students received financial aid, including grants, loans, and assistantships. The average total aid amount for recipients was $22,000.

Over the years, NPSAS has helped illuminate some major trends, including

  • The rise and fall of private education loans. The percentage of students using these loans peaked at 14 percent before the 2008 financial crisis. It dropped to 6 percent in 2011-2012, while the percentage of students using Federal Direct Loans (also known as Stafford Loans) increased.
  • The increase in military student populations. Between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, the number of undergraduate military students (including veterans) in U.S. colleges and universities increased from 914,000 to 1.1 million. During the same period, the percentage of military undergraduates who used veterans’ education benefits rose from 36 to 55 percent and the percentage of military graduate students using these benefits increased from 22 percent to 46 percent.
  • The expansion of Pell grants. In 2011-12, nearly half (48 percent) of financially independent undergraduates received a Pell grant, almost doubling the 25 percent rate in 1999-2000.

By uncovering important data and trends such as these, NPSAS helps federal policymakers understand the varied ways in which Americans fund college education and how those methods change. As costs increase and the government and private sector consider new options for students and families, NPSAS provides vital facts to inform policy decisions.

Setting the Groundwork for Additional In-Depth Studies of Students and Graduates

NPSAS data form the basis for other large, longitudinal education studies that we conduct. For the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, we follow a cohort of students over a six-year period, tracking their progress through college and into the labor market. In the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study, we survey recipients of bachelor’s degrees, particularly new teachers, on their education, employment, and family formation for the first 10 years after graduation. For both studies, we use NPSAS to identify representative populations and obtain baseline data.

NPSAS and its related studies are trusted resources for the education and policy community. We expect to continue our record of innovation and quality improvement as we lead NPSAS into the future.