Students’ Share of College Costs Rises

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The rising cost of college has some people asking: Is college really worth it? Data show that it is definitely a worthwhile investment, but when students commit to pursuing a college degree, the next question is often: How will I pay for it? There was a time when struggling students could rely on federal and state aid, their institutions, and their families to help them pay for college. But the results of a recent Sallie Mae survey show that college costs are increasingly being borne by students themselves.

Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College survey, conducted annually since 2008, asks 800 dependent undergraduates, ages 18 to 24, and 800 parents of undergraduates which funding sources they use to pay for college. The study’s five-year history makes it possible to track changes in funding patterns and amounts paid. The 2012 survey, conducted this past spring, covered the 2011-12 academic year.

The shift toward students carrying more of the education funding burden could be attributable to the changing financial dynamics of families and colleges. Between 2011 and 2012, parent contributions from income and savings declined and students’ own contributions — through income, savings, and borrowing — increased, covering 30 percent of college costs in 2012, up from 26 percent in 2011.

But families are not sitting on the sidelines as students struggle to realize their educational goals. Although the tough economy has caused many American families to lose financial ground, practically all those queried said they took measures to ensure money would be available for college. Students lived at home or added a roommate to reduce expenses. Parents reduced their own spending, which was matched by many students doing the same. Half of students said they increased their work hours, and 16 percent chose to attend college only part-time.

Despite some families’ best efforts, cost proved a limiting factor at several levels of college decision making, especially for low-income students. In 2012, cost was the driving factor in 69 percent of families eliminating specific colleges from consideration. That figure rises to 75 percent for students from low-income families, half of whom eliminated some colleges before even getting to the research phase. These students potentially bypassed their best institutional matches, and although grant and scholarship aid are up from 2009 and 2010 levels, they have fallen this year to 29 percent from a one-third share of college costs in 2011. Students also switched majors to cut costs, and 27 percent of students overall and 30 percent of low-income students chose or transferred to less-expensive schools.

The willingness of students to step up and assume their share of financial responsibility for their education, and their tenacity and flexibility in taking necessary measures to get through to completion, proves just how much they value this investment in their future. Society needs to offer a commensurate commitment.

—Anneliese M. Bruner