True or false: College is expensive

Published November 1, 2009  | November 2009 issue

Whether students are making different choices today about college—where to go, how to pay for it and so on—because of financing issues is an obscure, moving target, especially in an immediate sense. For starters, long-term trends tend to bend slowly, exacerbated by data lags that veil the effect of the recession on students’ enrollment and financial aid choices.

For what they’re worth, anecdotes are easy to come by. With the help of student leadership at several universities, the fedgazette conducted an (unscientific) online survey with students at a handful of universities in the district. The survey inquired about the cost of college and the use of financial aid in its many forms, including grants, loans and parental support. Close to 1,500 responses were received from students at four universities (three in Minnesota, one in North Dakota), including hundreds of additional comments to each of the survey’s questions.

Anecdotally, the findings broadly confirm many long-term trends in higher education seen in the data, while adding some student perspective to a variety of issues discussed in fedgazette articles.

  • Many students were receiving government grants and private scholarships. But a larger portion of students were borrowing to pay for college, and they were borrowing more than in previous years.
  • Financial aid was getting harder to obtain. The application process was burdensome, students were hoping for more grant aid, existing federal loan caps did not always provide for enough funding, and private loans were tougher to find and more expensive.
  • Less financial support appeared to be coming from home, partly because of recessionary pressures. Students said the “scoring” process for federal loan eligibility compounded the problem because it weighted parental income too much (particularly in cases where parents offered no assistance) and could not be adjusted to consider recent financial events in a household, such as a job loss.
  • A large majority of students were working to help pay for college.
  • Many said that the cost of college has made them reconsider the college they attended, or whether they could stay in college or attend part-time versus full-time. Some were also considering changing their lifestyle to help pay for college.

For more details of survey results—which cannot necessarily be considered representative of the overall student population because of possible sampling bias—see the accompanying spreadsheets.

Survey of MSU-Mankota students
Survey of MSU-Moorhead and Bemidji State University students
Survey of University of North Dakota students

See description and methodology.