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Gail MarksJarvis: More families say 'no' to expensive colleges

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By For The Chicago Tribune
Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

The practice of choosing the college you adore, and paying whatever it takes to go there, is eroding as more families turn down schools they consider too pricey.

Families are becoming deliberate about analyzing college costs and have been adopting strategies to pick more affordable options and cut some borrowing.

Yet while watching costs, 98 percent of students and their parents continue to consider paying for college worth the expense, according to a national study done by Ipsos Public Affairs for Sallie Mae.

To cut costs, 69 percent of families are choosing in-state colleges, and 54 percent of students are living with parents or relatives to keep spending on college down, according to the study.

In significantly greater numbers than the recent past, families report eliminating specific colleges as choices because the total cost of attending is higher than other alternatives.

Two-thirds of families say they have tossed out some colleges based on cost, according to the yearly “How America Pays for College” survey.

Student debt, lackluster pay

In 2009, despite being in the midst of the recession, only 56 percent of families said they were dismissing certain colleges because they were too pricey.

Price sensitivity is clearly building, perhaps as college prices keep rising, but also because many studies that show former college students are having trouble building strong financial lives because of excessive student debt and lackluster pay.

To economize, families are watching their costs upfront by choosing colleges within commuting distance of home or a relative's home.

Students are accelerating course work and favoring two-year public colleges more than the past.

Families reported the highest enrollment in two-year public colleges since the survey began in 2008.

About 34 percent of families were choosing two-year institutions, versus 30 percent in the previous year. Four-year college enrollment declined from 46 percent last year to 41 percent in 2014.

Families reported spending $11,012 a year, on average, for the two-year option, compared with $21,072 for the four-year college.

Most parents and students look at paying for college as a shared responsibility.

Parent income and savings, on average, paid 30 percent of the cost of college this year, while students paid 12 percent. About 31 percent of parents did not contribute anything. Only one-fifth of parents were able to cover the entire expense out of pocket.

A small minority of parents — just 11 percent — consider paying for college entirely their responsibility.

Average spending: $20,882

The attitude differs among high-income families, of whom 48 percent said parents are primarily responsible. Among all families, one in five say the student should bear the full responsibility.

When students borrow, most parents do not intend to help pay off the loans. Fewer than one-third of parents say they will contribute to loan payments.

The survey found the average spending on college this past academic year was $20,882, consistent with the last three years but down from the 2010 peak of $24,097.

Parents have substantially cut the portion they have been paying out of pocket. In 2010, out of pocket hit a high of 37 percent. Last year, it was 27 percent.

Even though 21 percent of parents used only out-of-pocket funds to pay, most consider financial aid essential.

Grants, scholarships

About 81 percent of all families filed the FAFSA, a government form that is the first step for applying for getting grants, scholarships and government student loans.

Sixty-six percent were able to win grants or scholarships, or free money provided by colleges or philanthropic groups.

Those grants and scholarships covered about 31 percent of the cost of college.

Borrowed money used to pay for college dropped to the lowest level in five years, or an average of $4,610 for the year by parents and students.

Loans paid for 22 percent of college costs, a decline from the previous year, when borrowed funds paid 27 percent. Most loans were taken by students, with only 1 in 10 parents borrowing.

Middle-income families relied on borrowing more than high- or low-income families. Their loans covered 31 percent of costs.

Half of students and 1 in 5 parents increased their work hours to help make college more affordable.

The recent trend has been for students to devote more of their income and savings to college. That was the case in 56 percent of families, compared with 45 percent in 2010.

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