Report: 67% of college students fully paying for their own education

Cengage's survey shows their determination to attain a degree, but the cost could drive them away.

A recent report from College Pulse and GradGuard revealed the potential for college students to withdraw this year because of the high costs of tuition, fees and other expenses at their institutions. A second one released this week offers a clearer picture of why.

According to a study done of 1,200 students ages 18-44 who attend both two-year and four-year colleges by education technology provider Cengage, two-thirds said they are completely funding their postsecondary education. While they are intent on getting degrees, they are struggling to finance those pursuits, even with loans.

“Affordability continues to be a major barrier for today’s college students,” said Kevin Carlsten, senior vice president of the U.S. Higher Education Institutional Group at Cengage. “But despite struggling to keep up with tuition and other costs, students still believe in the power of a college education. In order for that faith in education to continue, more needs to be done collectively to lower cost barriers. Students shouldn’t have to make painful tradeoffs when it comes to their education and a path to a better future.”

Nearly 30% of those surveyed who are not fully paying for college are at least sharing the responsibility with their parents. Only about 10% are attending college while their parents pay for all of it. For two-year students, the burden is even more pronounced, with more than 70% fully covering their costs. In the College Pulse survey, most parents indicated they probably could not afford a four-year education, and that was echoed in the Cengage study.

College students in the Pulse report were hopeful that if they could make it to the finish line that a better-paying job might provide that return on investment they are hoping for. And a hearty 78% of those polled by Cengage also believe in the value of a degree. However, they want assurances that they will have money to spend—around half only have about $250 left in savings now after making payments to their institutions—when they get out of college. They don’t want to be part of the millions of borrowers who’ve been swept up in the $1.2 trillion student loan debt crisis.

What can colleges do to help them achieve that?

  • Perhaps the most challenging is adjusting pricing. “Students want lower tuition; they would trade amenities for better learning support,” Cengage researchers said.
  • Most students said they would like to see less money spent on improvements to dorms, facilities and athletics and more on flexible, affordable options for course materials.
  • With applications and enrollments of freshman students increasing at many institutions as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges should continue to provide robust advising, mental health and financial aid support to ensure they are retained.
  • In an effort to keep numbers strong, they also must try to engage with those who previously have stopped out with resources to bring them back to campuses. For example, the University of California at Davis is one of four universities in the system (Riverside, Merced and Santa Barbara) that have partnered on a Reengagement Consortium with the help of nearly $5 million in grant money to get students to completion.

Although scores of institutions froze tuition costs during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have begun inching back up to try to offset inflation. Stephen Rozo, founder of the financial blog, offers a few tips in this recent University Business article to help colleges bridge those gaps and become more affordable.

Carlsten also offered further guidance to universities, saying, “institutions are feeling the impact from five consecutive semesters of down enrollment, but there are strategies that can help make college a more accessible option for students.” They include:

  • Exploring institutional partnerships to expand affordable access to course materials can help remove another barrier for students. Students said the most impactful thing their institution could do to make education more affordable is to lower tuition (36%) followed by providing more affordable access to course materials (21%). Almost all students (92%) said they wished course materials were included with their tuition and more than three-quarters (74%) said not knowing course materials costs from semester to semester was worrisome. Most students even said schools should prioritize investments in providing these materials over campus amenities. By partnering directly with content/tech providers to provide first day access to a wide range of quality materials in a subscription model, institutions can significantly lower these costs for students while providing an engaging, interactive learning experience.
  • Increasing flexibility, by offering course delivery modality options, or shorter-term courses and certificate programs, can help institutions drive equity and meet students where they are in their often-complex lives.
    • Tuition is the expense that college students struggle most to afford, but offering flexible programs including more online options broadens the pool of potential students while also giving students the flexibility to work while they earn their credential. We know many of today’s students are “non-traditional” for example they are older, are working and/or have care-giving responsibilities. Quality online courses supported by interactive online learning platforms and course materials can provide a successful educational experience and one that flexes to student needs.
    • Unbundling the degree and offering shorter-term courses and certificate programs could allow students to stack credentials over time toward a degree, while also enabling them to spread out college costs over a longer period.
  • Finally, institutions – and those providers that partner with them – have a bigger role to play in preparing students for a career, not just a degree. From helping them develop key employability skills, to gaining real world work experience, colleges have the opportunity and responsibility to do more to ensure students successfully transition to the workforce. College students see the value of a degree, but that worth is largely based on their ability to find sustainable employment, gain financial independence and have an impact on their lives and those around them.”
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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