Cost of College Is a Big Worry of Freshmen in National Survey

January 21, 2010

Financial concerns, from paying for college to job prospects, dominated the new-student experience in 2009, according to an annual survey on freshman attitudes.

About two-thirds of freshmen said they were either somewhat or very worried about their ability to finance their college educations. Those citing "some" concerns about money increased about two percentage points, to 55.4 percent, while students citing "major" concerns remained at 11.3 percent, about the same as in 2008.

The survey, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2009, is conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. This was the 44th year of the report, which provides institutions with information about the demographic profile, perceptions, and mind-set of their incoming freshmen classes.

The institute's Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which includes the survey, collected data from about 220,000 first-time, full-time freshmen at 297 four-year colleges and universities. The students were surveyed at the beginning of their first semester, a point that ranged from summer to late September.

John H. Pryor, director of the survey, said the effects of the economic downturn were spread across the college experience, whether the issue was how to pay for college or what majors and eventual careers to pursue.

Some of the students' concerns were driven by family finances. About 78 percent said they planned to pay for their first year of college at least in part from family resources.

At the same time, though, more students reported that their parents were out of work. A record-high 4.5 percent of freshmen said their fathers were unemployed. (That rate had long fluctuated between 2 and 3 percent.) The proportion of students saying their mothers were unemployed, which has risen steadily from 5.4 percent in 2006, reached 7.9 percent in 2009. As the proportion of unemployed parents grew, the percentage of students who said they planned to take out loans to help pay for their educations rose to about 53 percent, from 49 percent in 2008.

Another possible effect of the economic downturn was the change in the number of students who reported that they would pursue either majors or careers in business. The proportion of students planning to major in business dropped in 2009 to a 35-year low of 14.4 percent, and those with "business career aspirations" fell two percentage points from 2008.

"I would speculate that the reason why we see fewer students who are interested in business both as a major and a career is that they have seen a pretty spectacular fail in those areas over the last year," Mr. Pryor said.

Though fewer of those surveyed said they planned to pursue business majors and careers, 78 percent of the freshmen said being financially well-off was an important objective, making that the most prevalent goal among incoming freshmen for the second year in a row. In second place was raising a family, which about 75 percent of the students said was very important to them.

When it comes to their studies, about 39 percent of freshmen said they would need tutoring while in college. "Looking across all categories, approximately one in five students ... entering a four-year college as a first-year student today has had special tutoring or remedial work in high school," the report says. "Almost twice as many ... believe that they will need special tutoring or remedial work in college."

Military veterans may have an acute need for tutoring. Of the 595 freshmen who identified themselves as veterans, about 36 percent said they believed they would need tutoring in mathematics, compared with about 24 percent of all freshmen. Military veterans were tracked by the survey for the first time since 1992, because of the "renewed influx of veterans to college."

In extracurricular activities, students' commitment to volunteering seems to remain strong. About 41 percent of freshmen said there was "some chance" they would volunteer or perform community service while in college, and a record-high 31 percent said there was a "very good chance" that they would do so.

The community-service question was first asked in 1990, when only about 17 percent of students cited a "very good chance" that they would participate.