Two surveys released in recent weeks suggest that the basic concerns of college applicants don’t go away once students enter college as freshmen. Stress about college cost, ability to pay, and long-term debt, which begin percolating among high school seniors, not only affect college choice but evidently continue to loom large among freshmen just beginning their college journeys.
And young people are not particularly shy about voicing what worries them. According to the Princeton Review’s 2015 “College Hopes & Worries Survey”—the company’s 12th annual poll of college applicants and parents—concerns about college costs are soaring. Ninety percent of this year’s respondents said financial aid will be “Very Necessary” to pay for college. Within this group, 66 percent indicated that financial aid would be “Extremely Necessary.”
These results echo those of the 49th annual administration of UCLA’s CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey, in which over a third of the 153,015 respondents indicated some or major concern about ability to finance their college education.
And the stress is clearly discernible as early as senior year of high school. The Princeton Review found that 73 percent of their respondents to gauged stress levels as “High” or “Very High”—a 17 percent increase over the 56 percent who reported such stress levels in the survey’s first survey in 2003.
What’s causing the stress? The majority of applicants and their families (39 percent) told the Princeton Review that their biggest concern was “Level of debt to pay for the degree.” For 35 percent, their biggest worry was “Will get into first-choice college, but won’t have sufficient funds/aid to attend.” As recently as 2009, the answer most selected was “Won’t get in to my first-choice college”—no mention of ability to pay.
In fact, 45 percent of the freshmen responding to the CIRP survey indicated that “Cost of attending” was a “Very Important” factor in college choice, at the same time 43 percent said financial assistance was a “Very Important” factor choosing a college.
And 14.1 percent of the freshmen responded that not being able to afford their top choice was a “Very Important” factor in where they finally enrolled.
Both high school seniors and college freshmen agree that an important benefit of a college degree is the ability to get a better job, although the response appears more pronounced among freshmen.
The CIRP survey found that 86 percent of freshmen believed getting a better job was a “Very Important” reason to go to college, while 73 percent being able to make more money was “Very Important.”
About 45 percent of the Princeton Review’s college applicants and their families said the biggest benefit of a degree was a “Potentially better job/income,” while only 24 percent said the “Education” and 31 percent said “Exposure to new ideas” were the biggest benefits.
Judging from the various survey responses provided by college freshmen and college-bound high school students waiting “on deck,” improvements in the economy are having little impact on what concerns them most about college—costs and the ability to cover costs without getting into too much debt.
And these concerns will most likely feed into the college choices made during the run-up to final decisions communicated to colleges by May 1.
Complete findings from the “College Hopes & Worries Survey” are found on the Princeton Review website. Analyses and data from the CIRP Freshman Survey are provided on the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) website.