Higher Ed Needs to Think Differently as Students Focus on the Economy

Ann McClure's picture

The results of the annual survey of college freshmen, released this week by researchers at UCLA, confirm that the fragile economy continues to weigh heavily on the minds of today’s students. Since 2006, freshmen have listed getting a better job as the most important reason to go to college, and this year, 88 percent of them said so, an all time high.

Previously, first-year students had said that learning about things that interest them was the number one reason to go to college. Nearly 3 in 4 students now say that making more money is a very important reason to go to college.

It’s no wonder that economic concerns now dominate the discussion about the value of college. List prices for colleges continue to rise as the incomes of Americans lag. The median net worth of American families hasn’t been this low since 1992, so tuition is eating up a greater share of income, now nearly 38 percent of median income, up from 23 percent in 2001.

Sure, more financial aid lowers the list price for many students, but the current model of tuition discounting does not seem sustainable for a large swath of institutions. Six in ten colleges report flat or declining net-tuition revenue, meaning that they are giving away just as much or more in financial aid than they have in the past despite raising their tuition prices.

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