Freshmen increasingly concerned about cost of tuition, survey shows


The recent economic slump has freshmen more worried than ever about financing their education and has even led some to change their attitudes about majors and careers, according to an annual survey published by UCLA researchers.

The Cooperative Institute Research Program Freshman Survey, conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, surveyed 220,000 students from 297 four-year universities across the country last fall about their attitudes on a range of topics related to their lifestyles and life goals. The results were statistically adjusted to represent the 1.4 million freshmen who entered college in the fall of 2009.

The survey found that two-thirds of freshmen were somewhat or majorly concerned about paying tuition and other school-related expenses; the percentage is at its highest in more than a decade. More freshmen than in recent years said the amount of financial aid they received was a top consideration in choosing schools, and more freshmen said they considered financial security when deciding majors and careers to pursue.

Darnell Cole, associate professor of education and an expert on student experiences and performance, said the increase in anxiety about paying for college stems from factors such as rising tuition costs and a decrease in the availability of scholarships and grants.

“I think the phenomenon is straightforward,” Cole said. “College tuition has been increasing for the last five to 10 years, and the rate of students taking financial aid has increased. I would imagine that the increase in anxiety is enhanced by the economic downturn.”

For some USC freshmen, the anxieties associated with paying for college and finding a good job afterward are issues they can relate to.

“In terms of finances, that was a top priority in deciding where I would go to college,” said Alyssa Hargrave, a freshman majoring in animation.

Andrew Cho, a freshman majoring in biology who has federal and private loans, said the financial aid he received from USC was a deciding factor in his decision to pick USC over a UC school. With a recent change to his parents’ income, however, he is concerned about the financial aid he will get in the future.

“I’m a bit worried,” Cho said. “Last year, my parents were starting a business, and I got a lot of financial aid. This year, we’re already established so I’m a little worried about how that will affect the financial aid.”

Tony Tang, a freshman international student majoring in business administration, said paying for college is not a major concern for him because he has not been hit as hard by the economic downturn.

“I’m actually not that worried because my parents work in Canada, and I feel like the economic situation is much better in Canada than in California and in the U.S. as a whole.”

The concern about paying for school seems to be more prevalent among current freshmen than those who started school even just four years ago.

Alex Hall, a senior majoring in geography, said she was not worried about paying for college and is not worried now either. She is, however, worried that her choice of major might not give her the best opportunity to find a job.

“I’m really concerned about getting a job,” Hall said. “I’m thinking about going to grad school now because it’s so hard finding jobs.”

Hall said she would have considered majoring in business if she had anticipated that the job market would not be promising.

“I would have probably picked business because I would have been able to start my own business and make my own rules,” she said.

But according to the survey, freshmen are actually less likely to choose a business major now than ever before — the number of freshmen pursuing business majors dropped from 17 percent in 2008 to 14 percent last year, a 35-year low.

Pedro Matos, assistant professor of finance at the Marshall School of Business, said part of the reason for the decrease in freshmen pursuing  careers in business is a decline in business job opportunities like investment banking.

“The banks have stopped hiring for [investment banking assistant] programs for the last two or three years,” he said. “Those programs are frozen.”

Despite the negative vibe surrounding the business world, Michael Lin-Brande, a freshman majoring in business administration, said he is still considering pursuing a career in business. Though he admits there is a lot of uncertainty in the job market, he is confident the situation will get better.

“The economy is bad right now, but eventually it’s going to get better because the economy goes in cycles of booms and busts,” he said. “I’m thinking like in three years it will recover.”

  • Next to purchasing a home, a college education is probably going to be the largest expense/investment that a family can expect in their lifetime. If you have more than one child attending college, the education expense is going to be even more.

    Given the uncertainty of the economy over the past year and a half, I think it is natural for students attending college to have concerns about how they are going to cover the costs. Especially, if they have parents that are at risk of being laid off or are relying upon investment returns to cover the expenses.

    The silver lining is that Colleges and Universities nationwide understand the concerns of the families and students and try to put steps in place to mitigate the financial impact for them. Some approaches being utilized can include an increase in work study awards, an emergency fund/loan to help get a family through a single semester, or just being flexible when it comes to paying for tuition (monthly payment plans and extensions).

    The hope would be that some of these programs can provide relief for students and keep as many of them moving forward with their educational goals as possible.

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