Annual Poll of Freshmen Shows Effect of Recession

By KATE ZERNIKE

 

Published: January 21, 2010
The recession hit this year’s college freshmen hard, affecting how they chose a school as well as their ability to pay for it, according to an annual nationwide survey released Thursday.
Over all, students were more likely than previous freshmen to have a parent who was unemployed and less likely to have found a job that might help pay for college.
About two-thirds of incoming students said they had “some” or “major” concern about their ability to pay for their education. The percentage of those with “some” concern — 55.4 — was at its highest level since 1971.
The number of students taking out loans was at its highest in nine years, at 53.3 percent.
“We expected that, given what we were seeing last year in the economy, we would see some significant changes in how finances were impacting people’s ability to pay,” said John H. Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, which conducts the survey.
“What was more surprising,” he said, “was that it goes beyond just that into other areas. Everywhere we turned, whether it was how you chose your college or what do you think you are going to do in college, everywhere the finances piece popped out.”
The survey, which has been conducted for 44 years, asked about 220,000 incoming students at 297 campuses questions on everything from beer drinking habits and religious and political preferences to anticipated major and life goals. The answers were weighted to represent the 1.4 million full-time first-year students who entered 1,555 colleges and universities nationwide in the fall of 2009. (Each percentage point in the survey reflects the experience of roughly 14,000 students.)
When the survey was done in 2008, as the recession was deepening, researchers were somewhat surprised that the percentage of students taking out loans had not shifted appreciably. That changed this year, with the percentage climbing 3.9 points.
Students reported fewer resources to draw on. The number whose fathers were unemployed — 4.5 percent — was the highest in the history of the survey. The number of students whose mothers were unemployed was higher — 7.9 percent — and at its highest since 1979.
Fewer students reported working as high school seniors — 62.8 percent reported having a job, down from 66.4 percent in 2008 and 69.3 percent in 2007. “What all this points to is that they are going to be graduating with a larger debt burden than students in the past,” Mr. Pryor said.
Students were more likely than ever before to weigh financial factors in choosing a college: 41.6 percent of students reported that the cost of their school was a “very important” reason for choosing it, the highest number since the survey asked the question. And 44.7 percent said that an offer of financial aid from the school had been a very important reason for attending, up from 39.4 percent in 2007.
About 9 percent of students said they chose their college because their first choice did not offer them financial aid — the highest since that question was asked in 1984.
And students seemed acutely aware of value when choosing a college. The factor most often cited for choosing a school was that its graduates got good jobs — 56.5 percent said this was “very important,” the highest rate since the question was asked in 1985.
However, their ideas on where the good jobs are may be changing: the number of students saying they expected a career in business had dropped to 12.1 percent, the lowest since 1976.