College Costs Are Changing the Undergraduate Experience | From the Bell Tower

Cost has always been a factor in the college selection process. New surveys reveal that cost is no longer merely one factor but the overriding decision element. Academic librarians can contribute to affordability.

Steven Bell head shotCost has always been a factor in the college selection process. New surveys reveal that cost is no longer merely one factor but the overriding decision element. Academic librarians can contribute to affordability.

While the considerable cost of college has yet to completely cause students and parents to abandon plans to attend, the prospects of future debt may be frightening them just enough to cause a significant shift in college planning. In prior columns I shared how the mainstream media’s sensationalism of college tuition and extreme cases of student debt could alter how students and their parents perceive college value. That now appears to be happening. The media messaging, along with stories from friends and relatives, has mentally shifted how Americans think about the value of a college degree. If job prospects are uncertain unless one’s degree is from the most elite institutions, or in the most employable professions, why not choose the lowest cost option and avoid piling up life-changing massive debt? The connection between dollars spent—or borrowed—and career success is broken. How did we get to the point where the fear of cost alone, except for the wealthiest Americans, is now the number one factor in the college selection process?



Wealthy parents legally surrendering custody of their children so that they can obtain more financial aid and take on less debt is certainly an extreme and unethical example of avoiding the high cost of college. But even for the masses less likely to go that route, cost is becoming the overwhelming factor in the selection process. According to the College Savings Foundation’s tenth annual “How Youth Plan to Fund College” survey, high school students are more cost conscious than ever. An overwhelming 83 percent of respondents said affordability was a factor in deciding what college to attend, up from 75 percent the prior year. More concerning, 71 percent said costs could determine whether they go to college at all. There are increases all around in the number of students indicating they will opt for public institutions, community colleges, and technical schools to keep their potential debt as low as possible. What’s decreasing is the number of students who think they will be able to pay off their loans in full and on time. Cost consciousness is slowly supplanting more essential criterion in the college decision-making process.



How the general public learns what high school students and their parents are thinking about college can depend on their sources. In the mainstream media, a survey that reports a mix of attitudes about college attendance can easily be sensationalized to increase clicks and attention. Reporting that parents still want their children to attend college and will help pay for it is far less interesting than shocking readers with news that half of high school students have no plans to attend college or fear that college debt will last forever. That was a takeaway from a new TDAmeritrade “Young Americans and College Survey.” However, when a closer look is taken, the results are hardly as devastating for higher education’s future as headlines would suggest. While more students are indicating they are considering opting out of college, that’s still only about 20 percent in the TD survey. The vast majority of parents indicate they still expect their children to attend college. What is clear here is that, for those who attended college or are planning to, cost was or is a significant factor in deciding what college to attend. The vast majority said that they chose or would recommend choosing a less expensive school to avoid debt. There are other surveys that can be interpreted in any number of ways, and occasionally some mass media reports will attempt to debunk student debt myths, but where they are all fairly consistent is in confirming that tuition and other expenses are emerging as a top consideration.



In this environment of cost consciousness, institutions will increasingly take affordability factors into account in their enrollment strategies. That’s a favored tactic for private institutions looking for ways to offer a more attractive tuition, even if it’s only reducing the sticker price but not what families actually pay. With all the mixed information that high school students and their parents are getting, it’s no wonder people are skittish. Will tuition-free programs spread to more states? If so, small tuition-driven private colleges may fare even worse than projections suggest. Less costly public institutions of higher education also stand to lose if their core population of in-state students migrates to even less expensive community colleges, online options, trade schools, or—if the surveys are correct—simply decide on alternate learning and career options that put off or completely avoid traditional colleges and universities. One thing is for sure: if more students choose to opt out of the college track, the outlook for closings, mergers, staff layoffs, and other austerity measures looms even larger.



While academic librarians are largely limited in what they can do to keep college affordable and accessible, on a personal level each of us can use what we know about higher education to better inform our relatives, friends, and colleagues about the realities of college costs. Academic librarians are also contributing in direct and indirect ways to a more affordable higher education. When they encourage faculty to stop requiring expensive textbooks, they are helping to eliminate an added expense. When they fight journal publisher and other increases to material expenses, academic librarians are working to keep added costs from being passed on to students. As information providers and supporters of student success, academic librarians can help point students to unbiased sources of financial information, as well as leads for obtaining scholarships and support to persist to graduation in four years. The students most hurt by long-term debt are those who take loans, drop out in a year or two, fail to find good paying careers, and never recover financially.

People want to know why college costs so much and whether it still makes sense for students to go into debt for a degree. The answers are complex. The future of higher education depends on developing affordable solutions, whether partial or complete subsidized tuition, income share agreements, or other innovative plans. What we have now is unstainable and the signs suggest that students and their parents are no longer willing to sacrifice their future for it.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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