Parents' View of the Economy

March 30, 2009

Even as many colleges report increased student applications, administrators remain deeply worried about what will happen to enrollments this fall, given the economic turmoil facing many families. A new survey of parents of current college students suggests that college leaders' concerns are legitimate, but that the damage may not be as severe as they fear.

At least a third of the parents of freshmen at public and private colleges say the downturn will affect how they finance their children's college education next fall, according to the survey by the research company Eduventures. The company, which surveyed more than 7,000 parents of students at a mix of 19 public and private colleges of varying degrees of selectivity, asked a range of questions about the parents' economic situation and the likely impact of their circumstances on their ability to pay for college.

Thirty-six percent of parents of students at private colleges and a third of parents of public college undergraduates said that the national economic turbulence would affect the financing of college for their children -- with parents of out-of-state students about 3-5 percentage points more likely to anticipate difficulty.

The kind of impact parents are anticipating varies by income level, as seen in the table below:

Impact of Downturn on Parents' Ability to Pay for College, By Income Level

Annual family income Increase my contribution Difficulty with previously arranged resources Reduce my contribution Unable to finance my child's education
Less than $90,000 15.7% 30.5% 34.9% 26.3%
$90,000-$119,000 15.2 31.0 35.1 17.9
$120,000-$159,000 19.3 27.9 32.5 10.7
$160,000 and over 17.6 27.9 26.5 7.2

Relatively few parents, though, told Eduventures that they expect their families to take actions that would result in significant reductions in enrollment -- but they do envision responses that could lead to shifts in where students enroll.

Nearly one in five parents of students at private colleges said they expected their children to get a job, and another 12 percent said they anticipated having their children seek more work study assistance.

Less than 12 percent surveyed said their children would consider transferring to another (presumably less expensive) institution, and nearly 7 percent said the students might take at least some classes at a nearby community college. A little less than 3 percent said the students might have to postpone returning to college in the fall, and less than half a percent said their children would have to consider quitting college permanently.

Among the parents of public college students, 8.7 percent said their children might have to consider transferring (10.7 percent of those from out of state), and less than 3 percent said they would weigh stopping out of college. Nearly six percent of in-state students said they envisioned their children choosing to live at home instead of on campus.

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