What, Us Worry about Paying for College?

Listen to the media and you might think every American is scared silly about paying for college, and  public aid is stretched micron thin to help just the neediest of students. A new report analyzing what and how Americans paid for higher education last year, however, puts the lie to that image.

How America Pays for College: 2012, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs, offers an interesting breakdown of who pays what and how for college, and furnishes some welcome contextual data. I’m not sure there is a unifying message in the numbers – other than people seem to be economizing a bit since the 2009-10 academic year – but some of the potential lessons are striking.

The first lesson is don’t believe that government aid is just for the poor. Families making $100,000 or more used federal loans, tax-incentivized savings programs, and federal, state, and school-based grants – which do not include scholarships – to cover 27 percent of their total cost of attendance.

Next, don’t get caught up in the overblown controversy over private student loans. It’s a diversion from the much bigger impact of government aid. Only 1 percent of the total cost of attendance last year was covered by private loans, versus 4 percent by federal Parent PLUS loans, 13 percent by other federal loans, 1 percent by federal work-study, and 16 percent by federal, state, or school-based grants. And don’t forget: much of the cost of public institutions is borne by taxpayers before the tuition bills even go out.

Perhaps most interesting, it appears that even though the sticker price of college has risen at astronomical rates, most people aren’t sufficiently concerned that they plan ahead for how they’ll pay. 50 percent of respondents either “somewhat” or “strongly” disagreed with the statement that “before my child/I enrolled, our family created a plan for paying for all years of college.” Only 39 percent somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement.

What does this tell us? Potentially many things, but one might be that many people assume someone, no matter what, will ensure that they or their child will be able to go to college. Unfortunately, that “someone” often ends up being the American taxpayer.