College tuition: Six in 10 freshmen say economy affected choice of school

But concerns about college tuition are offset at least in part by financial aid, as well as big increases in the Federal Pell Grant Program.

A new survey has found that the economic downturn has affected the choice of where to attend school for six in 10 freshman at four-year colleges.

Getting into your dream college is one thing – paying for it is another. The economic downturn affected the choice of where to attend college for 6 out of 10 current freshmen at four-year schools, a new survey finds.

“We have many more students who are looking to multiple sources – combining loans, grants, income from their family – to put a package together that’s going to allow them to attend college ... [but] in many cases ... that still isn’t enough to [afford] their first choice,” says John Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of its annual Freshman Survey.

Of the 62 percent whose choice was affected by the economy, 55 percent are at their first-choice college, compared with 69 percent of those not affected by the economy. The affected students are more likely to be living at home or attending college close to home. Fourteen percent of them report major concerns about financing their education.

Concerns about college tuition and other expenses are offset at least in part by financial aid. Seventy-three percent of the college freshmen received grants and scholarships – the highest level in a decade. Just over half the students have taken out loans.

Historic increases in the Federal Pell Grant Program in recent years are helping a wave of low- and moderate-income students attend college. And schools’ own efforts to boost financial aid are keeping in check the “net price” (what students must actually pay), despite steep rises in published tuition and fees.

What a survey of four-year college students doesn’t show, however, is that other students end up at two-year colleges, or no college at all, because of concerns about costs. Moreover, a survey of freshmen doesn’t highlight that by the time of graduation, about two-thirds of seniors have taken on debt.

“The financial-aid package in freshman year sometimes is bigger than in later years. Also, families may not have realized the full cost of attending,” says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif.

Still, students clearly see college as an investment in their future. About 73 percent agree that “the chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power” – up from 66 percent in 2007, and the highest percentage since the CIRP survey started asking that question in 1971.

As is often the case in a struggling economy, “students are saying, I want to focus on what this will do to help me get a good job,” says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education in Washington. “In this sort of environment, we see fewer students majoring in liberal arts and humanities and more students majoring in business and engineering and other fields that are perceived to have a pretty clear labor-market payoff.”

Having their eyes on the job market won’t necessarily stop students from taking advantage of a full range of opportunities on campus. About one-third expect to participate in community service, a record high since tracking began in 1990, when the figure was 17 percent. Another third say there’s a good chance they’ll study abroad.

Nearly 58 percent say there’s a very good chance they’ll be satisfied with college, the highest percentage since 1982.

The survey, answered by just over 200,000 US college freshmen last fall, is statistically adjusted to represent the 1.5 million full-time freshmen attending college for the first time at four-year institutions. It is conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI).

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