College Game Plan

College applicants are stressed over paying the tab

Key Points
  • A majority of students and parents say their biggest college concern is the "level of debt to pay for the degree," according to The Princeton Review.
  • Yet it could still be a mistake to cross an expensive school off the list.
  • Some schools with sky-high tuition prices also have the most generous financial aid packages.
David McNew | Getty Images

Forget about those worries about getting into that first-choice school.

More than anything, the top concern parents and students now share is affording any college at all and dealing with the debt burden that goes hand-in-hand with a degree, according to The Princeton Review's 2018 College Hopes & Worries survey.

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the nearly 11,000 respondents reported high levels of stress around the college admission process — up 7 percent from last year and 17 percent more than in the survey's first year in 2003.

A majority of students and parents said their biggest concern was the "level of debt to pay for the degree." Contrast that to a decade ago, when the most commonly cited answer was "won't get into first-choice college."

It's no wonder. Tuition has historically risen about 3 percent to 5 percent a year, according to the College Board and, during the recession, declining public funds caused tuition to skyrocket. At private four-year schools, average tuition and fees rose 54 percent in the past 10 years. Tuition plus fees at four-year public schools, which were harder hit, jumped 71 percent over the time period.

As a result, college-loan balances in the U.S. have jumped to an all-time high of $1.4 trillion, according to Experian. The average outstanding balance is $34,144, up 62 percent over the last 10 years.

How to deal with college debt
How to deal with college debt

"College costs have outpaced the rate of inflation," said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor in chief. "But it's good for parents and students to know the difference between the sticker price and what many families actually pay." (That's the difference between the full tuition price and any need-based and merit aid that a student receives.)

Your net price is a college's tuition and fees minus grants, scholarships and education tax benefits, according to the College Board.

In fact, some schools with high sticker prices also have very deep pockets for financial aid, Franek said.

For this year's crop of applicants, a whopping 99 percent of students and their parents said financial aid would be necessary to pay for college and 65 percent said it was "extremely necessary," according to The Princeton Review.

When asked which part of the application process was the toughest, the majority of college hopefuls said it was completing the application and financial aid forms, followed by college admission tests.

Still, not too many people, it turns out, make their decision based on price. And nearly all students and parents believe college is worth the investment.

More from College Game Plan:
10 best value colleges
Your kid doesn't really care how much college costs
Student loan problems could hold back economic growth, Fed chief says