College costs shifting to students, Sallie Mae survey finds

July 16, 2012

Students are shouldering more of the burden of paying for college, increasing their borrowing and out-of-pocket contributions, according to a study from Sallie Mae to be released Monday.

In its annual survey, the nation’s largest private student lender found that undergraduates covered 30 percent of the cost of college themselves during the most recent academic year — the largest share in four years. They spent an average of $2,555 from their income and savings and took out $3,719 in loans, the report showed.

Meanwhile, parents struggled to maintain their level of financial support. Though they still paid for more than a third of their children’s college costs, they relied more heavily on borrowing, according to the study. The portion covered by parents’ out-of-pocket contribution fell to 28 percent, down nine percentage points from its peak two years ago.

The report called the changes a “major shift in spending” that occurred across all income levels. It comes amid a national debate over the $1 trillion student debt burden and the rising number of borrowers who have fallen behind on those loans. The Sallie Mae study provides a window into how families are factoring those costs into their college choices.

“They broke the piggy bank to meet those tuition obligations” immediately after the recession, said Sarah Ducich, senior vice president for public policy at Sallie Mae. Now, she said, “families have adjusted.”

Households are also dealing with dwindling scholarships and grants. Sallie Mae found that those funds paid for 29 percent of college expenses in the most recent academic year, down from a third the previous year.

Tighter budgets have forced many families to seek ways to save money on higher education. The study found that for the first time more than half of students lived at home. In addition, more students opted to live with a roommate or work longer hours to pay for school. According to Sallie Mae, families spent an average of $20,902 on college for the past academic year, down 5 percent from the previous year.

The price tag of college increasingly factored into students’ enrollment decisions. Just over half of families said they ruled out colleges based on cost before even applying. A record 69 percent eliminated schools after receiving their financial aid packages.

“They’re narrowing their choices as they go through,” Ducich said. “We’re seeing an increased consideration of cost all the way through.”

But the study also found that parents and students continued to place a high value on a college education.

About 53 percent of families strongly agreed that they were willing to stretch financially to pay for school, up two percentage points from last year. But those who strongly agreed that college was worth the experience regardless of future earnings dropped from 24 percent to 19 percent.

The Sallie Mae study was conducted by Ipsos, an independent market research firm. It surveyed 1,600 students and their parents over the phone in the spring.

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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