• September 5, 2015

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

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.


1. evansrwe - January 21, 2010 at 06:44 am

While the unemployment rate increased for parents of the students surveyed, the rates are still lower than the national average unemployment rate. This appears to indicate that most of the students surveyed came from families with greater financial stability, a trend that continues to be troubling (i.e., low-income students being left out of college).

2. nacs2007 - January 21, 2010 at 09:40 am

On a related note, a recent study of all college student spending behavior conducted by the National Association of College Store's OnCampus Research found that 50% of respondents indicated that they have made a concerted effort to decrease spending in the past few months due to the current U.S. economy. Fully 85% of respondents said they've been cutting back on spending on outside entertainment costs, opting to stay home to watch a movie, play a game, or read a book.

Meanwhile, 74% of students acknowledge that they have shopped at a discount store or bought less expensive brands, 65.6% have either used coupons or waited for an item to go on sale, and 60.6% re-used items that could hav ebeen thrown away (i.e. bags, bottles, plastic).

In addition 68% said they were spending less on clothing and shoes, with 34% acknowledging they have shopped at a thrift or consignment store within the past month. Health and beauty products were among the items least impacted by the present state of the economy. 53% of the students reported spending "about the same" on these items.

3. intered - January 21, 2010 at 11:11 am

Examining the consumer side of the college cost equation is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

As reported in the New York Times in December 2008, between 1982 and 2008, the costs of higher education increased over 400% while taxpayer income increased slightly over 120%. The 400% is now 410% but taxpayer is now 110%. In 2009, as the nation reeled under a net 2% decline in the CPI, colleges managed to increase costs by the same amount.


Setting the current economic crisis aside, middle class families had already hit the higher education affordability wall. In an economy where three-quarters of productivity derives from intellectual systems and processes, efficient and affordable higher education plays an elemental role in future economic performance. Even apart from this period of fiscal crisis, U.S. higher education is neither efficient nor affordable. Waste can be found under every desk.

College administrators have created the HEPI to obscure the fact that they manage cost increases only a few percent better than primary health care providers. This is either a shameful attempt at obfuscation or gross ignorance of the fundamentals of economics.


If we are serious about addressing the affordability issue, we will implement three-year degrees, find out and fix the arcane causes behind requirements that one attend college for six years (post-BA) to qualify to teach poetry when a physician assistant or nurse practitioner can perform surgery in two years or become an MD or DO in three, curtail financial aid when matriculation exceeds a reasonable time-to-degree, and eliminate programs that lead to no jobs and for which the only demand is ginned up by the professors who created them. While we're at it, we might also find out why faculty productivity has declined from 25-35% in the last 50 years while salary increases have outstripped the CPI.

This is a start. There are many more broken parts if anyone cares to look under the hood. There would be no affordability crisis had higher education been able to pace its costs to the overall economy.

Robert W. Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

4. drj50 - January 21, 2010 at 12:00 pm

re: Robert Tucker, intered

There are important issues to address in the cost of higher education, but understanding causes is essential. Mr. Tucker apparently misunderstands both the CPI and HEPI. The CPI estimates the increase in cost of a "basket" of goods purchased by a "typical consumer." It does not accurately represent the increases in costs experienced by everyone. As recently reported, senior citizens spend more on medication and other health-related matters than the "typical consumer," so the CPI really (and seriously) misestimates the real increase in seniors' cost of living. Similarly, colleges spend much more (as a percentage of total expenditures) on energy and technology than a typical consumer. As a result, the CPI does does not accurately reflect their real increases in costs. The HEPI may not be perfect, but insisting that colleges costs should match the CPI makes no more sense than insisting that senior citizens' costs should match those of single twenty-somethings. Tucker's complaint exhibits the "obfuscation or gross ignorance of the fundamentals of economics" that he decries in the HEPI.

Re. the assertion that "Waste can be found under every desk," I have looked carefully under and around my own desk and am having trouble finding the waste he is sure is there.

5. intered - January 21, 2010 at 03:23 pm

The genesis of the HEPI was political and the intent in creating the index was to take the political heat off of higher education's outside price increases. The ploy hasn't worked too well. One reason is that other sources, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, appear to share my misguided interpretations of the HEPI by ignoring it. Instead, they index higher education's inflationary price increases against the CPI or indexex in that family. DrJ50 might want to inform these news agencies of their faulty reasoning as well.

For those who want to know more about this issue, the item categories for the HEPI are as follows:

1. Professional salaries and fringe benefits of faculty, administrators and other professional service personnel

2. Non-professional wages, salaries and fringe benefits for clerical, technical, service and other non-professional personnel

3. Contracted services such as data processing, communication, transportation, supplies and materials, and equipment

4. Library acquisitions

5. Utilities

With this in mind, take a look at any university budget, noting the proportion of the total budget represented by personnel (faculty, administrators, staff) as represented by categories #1 and #2. Now ask yourself this: If the majority of a university's budget is accounted for by personnel costs, how valid is an inflation index that is driven largely by those same (not similar or analogous) personnel costs? In contexts outside higher education, we call this move "too clever by half."

The referential problems with the HEPI are even slightly worse than one might conclude from the above. Consider that library acquisitions (#4) are fringe members of the same education community and have demonstrated the same out-of-bounds price increases. Category #3 can be slightly messy because some members of the higher education community end up there, depending on the university's contracting practices. This leaves utilities (#5) as the only more-or-less purely independent driver of higher education's costs.

As portrayed inside higher education circles, the implication is that all of the HEPI drivers share #5's "gee whiz, its beyond our control" characteristic. How disingenuous.

Robert W Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

6. drj50 - January 21, 2010 at 05:11 pm

The point is not that "everything is out of our control," but that we need an appropriate measure of the real costs incurred by institutions of higher education and that the CPI does not provide one.

As Tucker notes, utilities and contracted services are not purely self-referential. As Tucker also notes, the largest component is personnel costs, but these are driven by several factors, none of which are appropriately measured by the CPI. Increasing benefit costs (particularly health insurance) is not unique to higher education. Salary increases are best compared to an index of earnings; in the fourth quarter of 2009, median weekly earnings rose 2.7% over the previous year, compared with an increase of 1.4% in the CPI (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.nr0.htm). Wage growth and CPI growth are not the same. On the question of staffing levels see the thoughtful examination at http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Are-Too-Bloated-/47958/.

If Tucker doesn't like the HEPI, that's fine. I hope he will develop a better measure than the HEPI or CPI to help educators and policy makers make good judgments about education costs.

7. prof291 - January 22, 2010 at 01:50 pm

I enjoy picking paragraphs at random and guessing which come from INTERED, antagonistic scourge of higher education.

8. intered - January 22, 2010 at 01:53 pm

From my perspective, the question, "How and what to index" goes to what variables should be managed to what purpose.

Since the core business of an institution of higher education is the production of credits and degrees to defined standards, the core indices should track cost-per-credit and cost-per-degree, indexed to standards, disaggregated first, then aggregated without and with a weighting system to account for variables of public value.

Better still would be to track cost per learning outcome and proficiency but we are at least 20 years away from that capability.

Some wags will cry foul. "Research," they will say, is the core business. This kind of lie is part of the problem. For virtually all colleges and universities, research is not the core product -- not even close!

It matters not, however, because the solution to the research/teaching debate is to account for the teaching and research functions separately; otherwise you get ring-around-the-rosy answers when you ask questions about productivity in either functional area.

The complexity of these issues, and their solutions, is not that great. The right team of graduate students in measurement science and economics could produce a decent set of metrics and indices that would lead us in the right direction. The barriers to effective solutions derive from a substantial carryover of the Mandarin culture under which higher education still suffers. It is that culture which gave us the HEPI.

Robert W Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

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