Sticker shock: More than 80% of recent H.S. grads didn’t even look at high-priced colleges

A new Niche report uncovers patterns from many incoming freshman concerned about pricing in higher education.

In a recent interview with University Business, National College Attainment Network CEO Kim Cook pointed out the lack of affordability in higher education, noting that more than 70% of four-year institutions are financially out of reach for students.

After a couple of years of soaring applications to selectives during the COVID-19 pandemic and buoyed by test-optional policies, students are becoming more discerning about how much they are willing to spend on a postsecondary education. According to the recent Niche Senior Enrollment Survey: The New Normal of more than 21,000 college-bound students, 81% said the sticker shock of high tuition and fees dissuaded them from applying to specific colleges and universities. Three years ago, that number was at 56%.

Although deep discounting and financial assistance have brought total costs down, students are looking at colleges like they might be looking at cars—if the MSRP is too high to start with, then why bother considering that Mercedes? And if there are other options out there, overextending the budget might not make sense. First-generation and lower-income students increasingly are considering colleges where total costs come in at less than $10,000, according to Niche.

“As college prices go up, so do the scholarships used to make it more affordable for students,” said Will Patch, Senior Enrollment Insights Leader at Niche. “However, students are choosing to eliminate colleges from consideration based on the sticker price rather than waiting to see how much aid they receive. Every time the total cost increases, a college eliminates more potential students.”

Those options are becoming fewer and fewer. Inflation is adding tension to both sides as students struggle with affordability and institutions are fighting to hold the line on tuition and fees because of increased operational costs. Still, the pattern of rising tuition far preceded the pandemic and the current economic crisis.

In fact, U.S. News and World Report released a study last fall of how costs have soared at national universities over the past decade. Costs at private universities have risen 144%, while out-of-state costs have soared more than 170% at public universities. Even in-state four-year public institutions have ballooned by 211%. Mirroring work done by NCAN, the Niche survey showed that only one-third of students said they can even afford the college they’re attending. Three-quarters of students plan to work to offset costs.

Unboxing the Niche report

From the survey, 78% of students said they got their first choice of college and are happy with it. However, only a third of them are attending institutions that are the least expensive that were available, and “only 58% of low-income students reported that they received aid from the college at which they’re enrolling.” Overall, more than 90% of students filled out FAFSAs, and three-quarters are getting financial aid (56% merit-based, 39% need-based).

More from UB: 67% of college students fully paying for their own education

Institutions with sticker prices more than $60,000 are the least likely (after those below $10,000) to be considered by underrepresented minorities, first-gen students and low-income students. Instead, the vast majority are applying to institutions with sticker prices less than $30,000. Students overall are also expanding the time they are seriously searching for colleges, starting before the summer of their final year and extending that through the spring of senior year. That is especially true for those thinking about two-year institutions.

“Institutions need to rethink the traditional admissions cycle and be prepared to meet students where they are through the spring of their senior year,” Niche researchers wrote in the report. “Recruiting and nurturing interest late in the cycle is key to succeeding in this new normal.”

Timelines and cost were not the only notable findings from the high school class of 2022, who took part in the survey from April through June 12:

  • While they might be going to websites to search out information on universities, they aren’t submitting inquiries of interest. Instead, they’re stealthily searching via Google and sites such as Niche to get as much information as possible.
  • In-person campus visits rose slightly from both 2020 and 2021 numbers but are down tremendously from 2016 when 44% of students hit at least four colleges; it was 23% in 2022.
  • Applications continued to remain steady over the past seven cycles, though there has been increased activity in applications to five-plus institutions (59%) and 10-plus institutions (26%), where the Common App has helped make it easier. Those that did face barriers acknowledge that fees, application lengths, requirements and confusion were the reasons they did not apply to specific institutions.
  • Brand is still important to students, a fact noted in more than 60% of survey responses.

The No. 1 concern for students is safety and the top characteristic they want to see (84%) is diversity on their campuses. Nearly half said they will not attend an institution that is not inclusive of all students.

“We all want to be able to see others like ourselves in whatever community we’re in, but surrounding yourself with people who bring different perspectives is critical to growing and learning,” Patch said. “That’s why students are looking for diversity in their colleges as well, and not just their peers but the faculty and staff they’ll be working with.”

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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