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Use of financial aid continues to grow, though fewer students are borrowing for college

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Financial aid remains a lifeline for the vast majority of undergraduates, as the percentage of those relying on loans and grants to cover college costs continues to rise.

A trove of data released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics shows 72 percent of undergraduate students received some form of financial aid in the 2015-2016 academic year, up from 71 percent in 2011-2012. The average amount of aid climbed to $12,300, from $10,800 four years earlier.

The center releases a snapshot every four years of how students are paying for college. The latest data, from a sample of more than 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students, show a continuation of a long-term trend toward greater reliance on financial aid, though the composition of that aid has changed some.

Four years ago, about 42 percent of undergraduates took out private and federal student loans, but that number declined to roughly 38 percent in the 2015-2016 academic year. Thirty-six percent took out federal loans, down from 40 percent four years earlier.

Meanwhile, only 4 percent of parents took out loans for their children through the federal PLUS program, about the same amount as the previous survey, though the average amount borrowed rose to $14,000, from $12,100.

Sixty-three percent of undergraduates were awarded grant aid, compared to 59 percent in 2011-2012. It appears that states and universities were more generous with grants as they recovered from the worst of the recession. A quarter of students received scholarships from their schools, an increase of 5 percentage points.

Families are paying more out of pocket for college as tuition increases surpass grant aid

Meanwhile, states doled out grants to 22 percent of undergraduates surveyed in the 2015-2016 academic year, compared to 15 percent four years earlier, according to the survey. Still, the growth in state-funded student aid has been slow in recent years. A study from the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs found states awarded about $12.5 billion in financial aid in the 2015-2016 academic year, an increase of less than 1 percent from the prior year. About two-thirds of the money states awarded in 2015-2016 was based on financial need.

According to Tuesday’s report, the federal government provided roughly the same amount of grant aid for low-income students, with 39 percent of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, compared to 41 percent four years earlier. Award recipients received an average of $3,700 in Pell dollars, up from $3,400 in 2011-2012.

Borrowing trends remained largely unchanged for graduate students. Forty-four percent took out student loans, a percentage point decline from the prior survey. Those who borrowed took out an average of $23,400, up from $21,400. The number of grad students with fellowships covering at least some of the cost of their degree dipped to 8 percent, from 12 percent. Those that were awarded fellowships received an average $13,400, down from $14,600.