Changed plans? Almost 70% of students say college is unaffordable

Families concerned about costs for 2021 and beyond.

When the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its series of postsecondary updates last year, there were steep enrollment declines among high school graduates from the Class of 2020 and current college students tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citizens Financial Group noted in its annual Student Lending Survey that more than half of those students expressed concerns about public health and safety. This year, those same worries have remained, though only about a third say that safety would affect their plans for the fall 2021 semester.

However, many more are deeply concerned about rising costs. Nearly 70% of prospective and current college students say the price of attending institutions has altered their plans for the 2021-22 academic year. That conversation is nothing new in higher education, but the pandemic has heightened concerns. Already steep tuition and increasing student loan debt—which now averages more than $32,000 per student—have been big factors in decision-making.

“Our annual survey has consistently shown that young adults are worried about their future and the cost of college,” said Christine Roberts, head of Student Lending at Citizens. “We are seeing families embracing discussions around the cost of college earlier.”

How much earlier? Half of those polled say they started before high school.

Though some institutions held their ground with tuition and fee freezes last year, 56% of college students said they were bracing for increases. Even after a tumultuous 2020, more students and families (43%) are having deep discussions this year about affordability, Citizens says. Nearly 60% of families who have been impacted by the fallout of COVID-19 through job loss or other financial loss have been talking with children about the costs of attending. By comparison, only 6% of those surveyed said they were unfazed by those expenses.

Discounting and scholarships haven’t been enough to offset the costs of attending, especially private institutions. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) has shown through its data that goes back to 2014 that many colleges remain out of reach for even Pell-eligible students—thus the ardent push for the Double The Pell campaign. Those that are affected are now including not just the underserved and low-income students but those whose families have moderate incomes, too.

The affordability problem extends beyond those high schoolers looking to get into college. Those currently attending are impacted, as well. Some 40% of bachelor’s degree seekers don’t make it to completion, and that number is less than 50% for all those trying to graduate.

The survey, done of 2,000 respondents (958 students and more than 1,000 parents), showed other impacts of the pandemic that could impact institutions short on holistic and financial support mechanisms. Most notably, more than 40% of students expressed that the pandemic, the job market and college waitlists were affecting their mental health and said that anxiety could have an “impact on their post-high school plans.” Almost one-third of first-time students in the survey were waitlisted at their top choice of schools for 2021-22.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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