From getting into your first-choice school to moving away from home, going to college is stressful. But more than anything, the top concern parents and students share these days is paying the tab and any ensuing debt burden, according to The Princeton Review's 2016 College Hopes & Worries survey.
A majority of students and parents said their biggest concern was the "level of debt to pay for the degree," followed by "will get into first-choice college, but won't have sufficient funds/aid to attend."
Contrast that to a decade ago, when the most commonly cited answer was "won't get in to first-choice college."
It's no wonder. College costs have rapidly increased over the past decade. At public four-year schools, expenses for the 2015–16 school year rose to about $19,500 from $12,000 a decade ago, according to the College Board. Tuition plus room and board at four-year private universities is even higher — almost $44,000 on average, up from about $29,000 in the 2005–2006 school year.
"College costs have increased two times to three times faster than the rate of inflation every year consecutively for the last 20," said Robert Franek, senior vice president and publisher at The Princeton Review.
Seventy-nine percent of respondents in a Gallup-Lumina poll released last year did not think that higher education is affordable for everyone who needs it.
Almost 9 in 10 college hopefuls said financial aid will be "very" or "extremely" necessary to pay for college, according to The Princeton Review.
"The good news is there is a lot of financial aid available — $150 billion in financial aid last year alone," Franek said, mostly as grants, work-study programs and loans.
When deciding on a school, you should consider the return on investment, said Fred Amrein, a financial planner in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, with an expertise in educational funding.
"Envision your child's life at 25," he said. "What's the likelihood you will get the job you want? What will it pay? How much debt will it require to get there?"
To that end, look at retention rates and graduation rates at each school, visit the career centers and ask what the school offers in the way of job placement and what internship programs are available during college, he said.
The Princeton Review also asked the 10,000 respondents their advice for next year's applicants. The most common response: "start early."