Looking Beyond the Sticker Price

by Sophie Blumert

“Cost of college continues to skyrocket…”

“Several colleges in New England now cost $70,000 or more…”

“The spiraling cost of college…”

These are just a few of the hundreds of headlines related to the steady rise in college tuition over several decades—a trend that has become even more pronounced in the past fifteen years. But do these headlines accurately reflect the financial challenges that college students face on a daily basis? Do students even worry about finances when they are in college?

In our national study of higher education, we interviewed approximately 2,000 participants across ten disparate campuses. We asked about a variety of topics, including academics, campus life, and the larger purpose of higher education. We asked 1000 students (half first-year students, half close to graduation) about opportunities and transformative moments, as well as struggles and what keeps them up at night. We purposefully did not bring up finances or the cost of college during the interview—we wanted to see if it would come up spontaneously.

And indeed, these topics did come up, but not in the ways we hypothesized—namely, money and finance were not a major source of stress or concern. Though over 90% of students brought up the topic of money in relation to the college experience, it was not of “high importance” to the majority of students. In fact, the importance of finances varied greatly. In some cases, students only had one in passing comment; and few students talked about finances consistently throughout the course of the interview. In addition, for those who were more preoccupied about finances, their concerns were not all focused on tuition costs; finances turned out to be a much more complex topic—more than the media typically portrays.

Before we delve into the details, it is important to note that at this moment (midway through 2020), the landscape of higher education is in turmoil—the world has been fundamentally changed by the public health crisis, and higher education may indeed be at a turning point. It is unclear how much students or their parents are willing to pay for an education that might be partially (or even fully) online; and job prospects are increasingly grim for recent college graduates. If we were still collecting data for our study, the story surrounding finances—which we describe in this blog—might be significantly different; but we interviewed students during a period of reasonable economic stability (2012-2018). This context is important—we readily acknowledge that, going forward, the conversation surrounding college tuition may change.

Views of Students

What did we find? In general, relatively few students described finances as highly important to them; approximately one-fifth (18%) of students were categorized as “high importance” and another third (30%) were categorized as “medium importance” (in coding, we coded participants’ comments about finances throughout the whole transcript into three levels of importance: low, medium, and high). Therefore, despite common perception, most students were not overly preoccupied or worried about finances.

At the same time, we do not want to suggest that some students aren’t struggling with money—they are, but the challenges they faced appeared as “book-ends” to their college experiences: before freshman year as they were choosing where to enroll, and at the tail end of their senior year as they were searching for jobs. But, while in college, finances did not weigh as heavily on students as we might have initially predicted or as commentators in the media might have suggested. Revealingly, even when we specifically asked about their own struggles in college, and what keeps them up at night, finances were rarely mentioned.

However, for those students who consistently talk about the importance of finances, we wanted to know more about their concerns. These fell into two broad categories: 1) Current financial challenges 2) Future financial challenges.

First, we’ll focus on the current financial challenges.

Contrary to what one might read in the news about higher education, tuition is not a primary or immediate stressor for students in their everyday lives. Instead, it appears as an undercurrent, an influencing factor in decisions that students (and/or their parents) make in regard to their college experience. Instead of accepting the high sticker price of college, students made deliberate decisions, whether by choice or out of necessity, to offset the cost of their education. Approximately one-third (33%) of our sample of students expressed that they chose their college for financial reasons. A similar proportion (29%) were working on- or off-campus jobs. A quarter (24%) reported that they received some form of financial aid. And another third (33%) were commuting to campus, thereby saving costs on room and board. Most of these decisions took place before students matriculated but had a lasting impact on their college experience—few students articulated any stress about not being able to afford college at all. Instead, they described the measures they took to alleviate some of the financial burden of pursuing a higher degree.

In addition to these individual concerns that students had about their finances—mostly before they arrived on campus—the current financial struggles students described seemed to stem from tensions they felt surrounding socioeconomic divides on campus. Interestingly, most of the students who brought up these tensions were at highly selective campuses, which in our study tended to be private colleges with much higher tuition costs. However, these schools also had the resources to provide aid to students in lower income brackets; therefore, the disparities between the “haves” and “have-nots” were much more salient on these campuses. In particular, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds would explain that they were unable to participate in certain social activities because they did not have the disposable income that their higher-SES friends had and felt that their struggles were not well understood or ignored; more often than not, this resulted in feelings of isolation and disillusionment.   

“There is socioeconomic diversity, but no one talks about it. People just assume that everyone’s from at least an upper middle-class status… and those assumptions can be difficult to undermine. When those aren’t real, um, people don’t get it. Like, I have a work study job. People have asked me why I have a work study job. Wouldn’t I rather have the free time? And I’m like, ‘No, I actually need a work study job.’ Or like I don’t go home for Thanksgiving generally, because the plane tickets are really expensive. People ask me about that too…”

It is important to keep in mind that since we did not ask students directly about finances, these challenges are entirely self-reported; the figures might have been higher had we decided to probe. As interviewers, we do not know what students are truly paying for their college education, or what kind of debt they will have when they leave. However, the comments they made about their financial choices, at any valence level, indicated to us that costs are at least in the back of their minds.

Second, students were also thinking about the future—the types of jobs they wanted, which in the course of time might lead to financial stability, and even social mobility.

This focus was most evident when we looked at the difference between first-year students and graduating students in our sample. Very few first-year students were highly concerned about their finances (12%), while graduating students were more worried (24%). One might expect this result: graduating students are tasked with the challenge of searching for a job and moving forward into young adulthood after graduation. They also are faced with the reality of paying back loans and gaining back whatever amount they spent on tuition, room, and board. Overall, this difference between these groups of students suggests that tuition may be more of an abstract concept for first year students, but for graduating students it is a daunting (and all too real) figure.

It seemed to us that students were more concerned with day-to-day costs of individual purchases rather than with the large ticket item of their college education. But still, it was sometimes difficult to persuade students to participate in our study, even when offering them $50 for an hour of their time. Revealingly, when this $50 was attached to something physical, like a MetroCard, students readily accepted our offer. This perhaps surprising phenomenon suggested that students were focused on their immediate financial needs—especially those that were more pressing and more concrete.

It is quite possible that students in college do not necessarily grasp the true dollar amount of their college education, as the vast majority have never been confronted with paying for something this expensive. Recognizing that four years of continuing education will set you back over $100,000 (and oftentimes more than that), is a concept that’s difficult to feel tangible and urgent. Additionally, the logistics of paying off loans, for students who have them, are often delayed; therefore, students are able to put this out of their minds while they are in college. But then graduation comes, and suddenly the numbers become much more tangible and much more concerning.

We found that students’ financial needs and decisions were sometimes related to how they approached other aspects of their college experience, including their academic coursework and their social lives. As mentioned in earlier blogs, almost half of the students in our study were categorized as having a “transactional” mental model. In many cases, this meant that students approached college with the goal of securing career prospects post-graduation. Students chose majors that they believed were more “practical;” they actively sought out internship opportunities and extracurricular activities on campus that they could put on their resume; and they were highly pre-occupied by academic success—grades and GPA that they believed would set them apart from their peers in the future.

“Well the way I look at college is very academic based because I was very … I [have a] pretty solid plan of what I want to do after college, I know I want to go to med school, I know I want to get into a dermatology residency, so the way I look at college is to give the best I can, like get as involved as… much as possible, get the best grades I can and just try to do what I can to get on to my next step.”

While students may not have been explicitly aware that their approach to college was impacted by their financial concerns and/or financial aspirations, it was clear to us that this was part of the story. The driving force might not have been tuition, but instead a desire to be set up for financial success and stability in the future. And though these concerns are not necessarily immediate ones, the messaging that students receive from their parents, peers, and institutions shoehorns them into this mindset early—sometimes as early as high school.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that a small percentage of students are aware of their transactional approach to college could change their financial circumstances in the future. In particular, students from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds articulated the social mobility benefits that they believed that college could provide them and made clear distinctions between jobs and careers. These students represent a type of “blended” mental model that we have labeled  “transactional-in-order-to-be-transformational.” They saw the transformative power that college could have for their financial futures and the opportunity to set them up for a long-term career. These students were upfront about their goals for upward mobility, and therefore approached college in a transactional way—they took advantage of every opportunity available to them, often while balancing other responsibilities outside of college. But unlike other transactional students, they believed that the purpose of college transcended just getting a job or gaining admission to a graduate program. Instead, they talked about how it could change their lives.

“I say going to college is basically taking your destiny into your own hands and trying to make it work for you. Obviously, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but going to college is the right step… If you want a better life than what your parents were able to give you; if you want to give your future kids, a better life than you had… you do need to go to college.”

“So, my goal for college is honestly… getting out of poverty if I’m being completely honest, and it’s being an example to younger ones in my family also, to be educated. It’s not just schooling, it’s like education, gaining knowledge, um, yeah … I’m proving to myself that I could honestly … Like, once I put my mind to something, I can get it done. It’s personal too, so.”

Views of Other Stakeholders

While students make up half of our sample, we also interviewed on-campus adults (faculty and administrators) and off-campus adults (parents, alumni, and trustees) to understand their views of the college experience. To our surprise, adult constituencies view the issue of college finances quite differently than students. While only a fifth of students in our sample were highly concerned about finances, almost a third (27%) of on-campus and off-campus adults were extremely concerned about students’ financial issues. We wondered why this was different—where did the misalignment stem from?

In general, on-campus adults (faculty and administrators) talked about the numerous hurdles that their students needed to overcome related to the cost of college. However, we note an important difference between faculty at higher selective campuses and those at lower selective campuses.

At the higher selective campuses, faculty seemed disconnected from the day-to-day challenges that students faced—they talked about the intricacies of financial aid and the increasingly high sticker price of private colleges. Very few acknowledged the challenges that students at these campuses faced regarding socioeconomic tensions. Additionally, like many of us when we don’t have on our hats as researchers, on-campus adults at these schools were prone to anecdotal fallacy—they would reference the experiences of a few students rather than considering the larger population. And perhaps most importantly, faculty and administrators at these schools were not able, or not inclined, to make the time to listen to their students’ struggles beyond academics. They relied instead on their knowledge from the news, and the experiences of one or two students.

In comparison, faculty and administrators at lower-selectivity institutions were seemingly more aware of the day-to-day difficulties students faced. In particular, faculty at one of our campuses were highly attuned to their students’ financial situations. We noticed that members of the faculty at this school were committed to their teaching mission, regularly set up meetings with students, and strove to create a sense of community and belonging. Due to this intentional practice of fostering personal connections, and perhaps as well to signals from the school’s leadership, the faculty and administrators at this school were able to give us much more detail and texture to the financial experiences of students.

“I mean I think that especially, especially here when we see a lot, we have a lot of low income folks, we have a lot of first year college students, a lot of people that are juggling family and jobs and that’s a lot of stuff, that crowds in to your reflective space and it can you know, make it hard to really, you know, invest in your classes or your major. And so I think that in addition to the classroom environment being supportive um, that we need to recognize that our students need a lot of other broader support… we have, you know, realizing that we have so many housing insecure students, [we need] an initiative to, you know, figure out how to support our homeless students. And, you know we have the childcare center for working parents- or you know, students that are parents.”

When we shifted to look at off-campus adults, we noticed similar numbers to faculty and administrators, but perhaps a different framing of the student financial experience. Approximately 28% of alumni, 25% of parents, and 28% of trustees were highly concerned about students’ finances. For two of these constituencies, we anticipated that there might be qualitative similarities: parents and alumni are much closer to the financial struggles of current students compared to faculty, administrators, and trustees. Additionally, we were not surprised to see the higher level of preoccupation with finances from these groups; parents are often footing the bill for their students, and young alumni are in the thick of paying off their loans.

But still, these groups are not always attuned to the actual struggles that students face on campus with respect to money. Like faculty and administrators, parents and alumni name finances as students’ biggest struggle in college much more frequently than do students (24% of on-campus adults, 20% of off-campus adults, and 5% of students). They also identify tuition costs as one of the biggest problems on campus overall, whereas students are much more likely to talk about social issues (including socioeconomic tensions). Off-campus adults, particularly parents and alumni, are more concerned about tuition dollars because they are worried about a return on investment—they want to be sure that the experience of the current generation will be “worth it.” This stance is not dissimilar from students’ concerns about future jobs and careers, but still misses the mark about the current challenges that many students’ face while on campus.

Summary

Clearly, different constituencies have different views on what students are truly struggling with during college; while adults think that finances are a major problem for students, this is by no means equally as problematic for the majority of students. Tuition and cost of college may be a consistent headline in the news—and it should continue to be reported on, especially now as higher education continues to adapt—but for students, it will always be more complicated than a number.

We would encourage on-campus adults to look past the news stories about tuition, since they may well not represent the particular population that they work with. We acknowledge that there may not be time or space to listen to each individual students’ personal experience with finances—teaching loads and professional responsibilities to the school are numerous. Instead, we hope that faculty and administrators will sample to other sources of information that highlight student voices and focus on the statistics about students from their specific college, rather than the national ones. And as suggested, administrators and long-time faculty can set an example by soliciting and attending carefully to the perspective of students from diverse backgrounds and financial stability.

While we didn’t hear as much from students about finances as we might have expected, it is still very much a throughline in our study—whether that be through lifestyle choices, social issues such as socioeconomic status, or future careers. In general, tuition is not something that overwhelms students in their everyday college experience, and faculty and administrators are not always cognizant of the challenges that students are facing. Though there are certainly students in our study who did express consistent struggles with paying for college, our overall finding still applies: students do not seem to worry about tuition on a regular basis, but they (and/or their families) make deliberate decisions that impact their financial lives in college, and their future financial prospects.

I would like to thank Jeff Robinson for his contributions to coding and analyzing the data for this blog.

© Sophie Blumert 2020

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