98% of college applicants stressed about financial aid, survey shows

A new Princeton Review report shows the concerns and hopes of students and parents during the 2021 process.
By: | March 9, 2021
Getty Images

What have students and parents been thinking most about during this year’s college application process?

Aside from the annual array of worries – including matching “overall fit” to desires – the two groups still have the pandemic on their minds along with the tough decision to include or not include standardized test scores.

But the biggest stressors revolve around financial aid and debt, which often supplant being accepted to an institution of higher education as a top concern, according to the new College Hopes & Worries Survey released today by The Princeton Review.

A robust 98% of the more than 14,000 participants said they will need financial loans to be able to afford college, including 82% who said it is “extremely” or “very” necessary. The majority (41%) cited their greatest worry as “level of debt to pay for the degree.”

Only around a quarter said their biggest concerns were either getting into their “first-choice college, without being able afford to it” or “won’t get into first-choice college.” That is a big shift from a decade and half ago when those who were surveyed largely selected being accepted by their first choice as their top worry.

All of it currently adds up to one number – 76% – the percentage of students who said their stress was “high” or “very high” about their applications, a 2% jump from last year and an 18% jump over the past 18 years.

And yet, the best percentage of all for college and university leaders was 99%, the number of students who believe that higher education is worth it.

Dare to dream?

More than 11,000 students and a little less than 3,000 parents took this year’s 20-question survey in February. One of the annual questions pollsters from the Princeton Review asked was to pick an institution that would be your dream college to attend, if cost were not a factor. This year, students chose these five in order: Harvard, Stanford, New York University, Columbia University and the University of California at Los Angeles. Parents listed Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Yale. Overall, respondents chose 375 different institutions, with the only difference among the top 10 being that students favored the University of Texas-Austin while parents selected Duke University.

Still, those dreams often face cold reality – either not being accepted or not being able to afford that institution. And in 2021, there was another factor in the process, COVID-19. More than half of those surveyed said that the pandemic was affecting which schools they were applying to and that they were “applying to colleges with lower sticker prices.”

One notable number from the survey is that despite the pandemic, nearly 70% of students said they would consider an institution more than 250 miles from their home and another 16% would entertain one more than 1,000 miles away. Parents weren’t quite on the same page, with half expressing the desire for their children to remain within 250 miles. Those statistics have remained largely the same since 2007, according to the Princeton Review.

Half of students, however, did indicate concerns over “the potential impact on grades and extracurriculars” in attending a remote college.

In other questions on the survey, which included students and parents from all 50 states as well as 42 countries, here is how they responded:

Standardized tests: The majority of respondents said the toughest part of applying was taking the SAT or ACT. More than third either planned to take or were taking the SAT, while just 14% were taking the ACT alone – as many as those not taking either test.

Job prospects: Most (43%) said a college degree gives them a better chance of landing a job after they graduate. Other benefits of attending included “exposure to new ideas” (32%) and education (25%).

College choice: When asked why they chose to apply to a college, 41% said it was because it had the best “overall fit”. Another 39% said it was the “college with the best program for my (or my child’s) interest.” Just over 10% said it was picking it because it had “the best academic reputation” and only 9% said they would pick “the most affordable college”, despite the financial aid concerns above.