A Survey Of Families: Grappling With College Costs

Renee Montagne interviews Sarah Ducich, senior vice president for public policy at Sallie Mae. The big student lender just issued a major report on how families are paying for college these days and among the findings, it shows that students are taking on more of the burden of paying for college compared to before.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

To talk more about how families are managing college costs, we turn to Sarah Ducich. She is a senior vice president at the student loan provider Sallie Mae and author of a report on a nationwide survey of 1600 undergraduates and parents looking at the sorts of choices they're making these days. She joined us in our Washington studio.

Good morning.

SARAH DUCICH: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: In the family we just heard, the daughter and the mother are both taking out loans and splitting the cost of college. How typical is that?

DUCICH: Well, it is typical of families sharing the cost of college. And what we've seen is a decline in, really, what parents are able to put in to pay for college. And that's really from their income and savings. And students are picking up a slightly larger share. Not larger than parents. Parents still contribute more than the students, but students are picking up a greater share of the costs. And some of that is through borrowing.

MONTAGNE: As we just heard, Emily, the daughter, had started in a school far away from home, a much more expensive proposition. She transferred to an in-state school. Did you find in your study, that more students are doing that?

DUCICH: What we did find is that families are eliminating schools based on cost at a higher level than they ever have.

MONTAGNE: So they're saying, we can't do that. I'm sorry.

DUCICH: We can't do that.

MONTAGNE: Take it off the table.

DUCICH: We asked them, at various points in the application process, did you eliminate a school based on cost. And we found that, by the end of the process, seven out of ten had eliminated a school based on cost at some point in the process. That compares to about a little more than half four years ago.

MONTAGNE: It did appear, from the story, that was a sort of sad prospect for the student, but then she was very optimistic and was obviously going to get over it pretty quickly, that really college was the thing. Is that what you're finding in your study with other parents and students?

DUCICH: College is the thing. When we asked these families, these families are dedicated to the prospect of college. I mean, we have a 98 percent agreement in the value of college as an investment in the future. That's an unbelievable value proposition. But I think what's happening is we're seeing cost enter into the equation at more points. They're figuring out ways to save. They're figuring out ways to spend less.

It's not just picking the in-state school. We're seeing a high percentage of students living at home now. Half of students, this year, live at home.

MONTAGNE: And that is - what kind of a spike?

DUCICH: Well, it's an increase from about 44 percent last year. But where we are really seeing it is in the families with incomes over $100,000. Two years ago, those families, about one in four of those students lived at home. And this year, they look more like everybody else, which is about half of those students live at home.

MONTAGNE: Is there a shift in how families, they'll look at college as in? Are families changing their view, maybe the student doesn't have to get a four-year degree, but could get an associate's degree from a two-year college? Is that a view that's changing - maybe even technical or vocational training, something like that?

DUCICH: Well, we haven't seen that. But what we have seen is those practical degrees like nursing, veterinary, or in the hard sciences: math, science, engineering. Half of students are in those programs, so we're seeing more job-oriented choices. Where we see a decline, through the last few years, is on college as an experience. And this is particularly true in parents.

When we asked parents to you agree that you would send their students to school just for the experience? A third, a couple of years ago, said yes, strongly agree with that statement. This year, 19 percent. So I think what we've seen - because of what's gone on in the economy - is families are getting more focused on why we're going to school, the value of going to college, and looking to the future and making sure that the investment pays off.

MONTAGNE: Sarah Ducich is head of public policy at Sallie Mae and author of its new report "How America Pays for College." Thank you very much.

DUCICH: Oh, thank you.

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