Personal Finance

Coronavirus may drive more high school seniors to in-state public colleges

Key Points
  • The coronavirus outbreak will have a major impact on the decisions many high school seniors make now about college.
  • The majority of applicants will choose a school within 180 miles, or roughly three hours, from their family's home, according to The Princeton Review.
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For this year's crop of high school seniors, their freshman college year is full of unknowns.

Chief among them is where they will enroll and if they will even be able to afford it in the fall.

For now, National College Decision Day is set for May 1, the deadline for high school seniors to choose which college they will attend.

This year, however, a global pandemic and fears of a recession along with soaring college costs and record student loan debt will push more students and families to choose local and less-expensive public schools rather than private universities far from home, according to Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor-in-chief and author of "The Best 385 Colleges."

"When students and parents are nervous, they are going to make different decisions," he said.  

When students and parents are nervous, they are going to make different decisions.
Robert Franek
editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review

The majority, or 70%, of all students will stay within 180 miles, or roughly three hours, from their family's home to attend college, according to The Princeton Review.

"With the COVID-19 virus in circulation, students are even more likely to stay home," Franek said.

Further, many colleges and universities are cancelling recruiting events and campus visits.

"That's going to have an effect on the decision-making process," added Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingforCollege.com. 

In addition to financial concerns and academics, choosing a school is also an emotional decision, Kantrowitz said.

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Heightened by fears of a sharp economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, a majority of students and parents now say affordability and dealing with the debt burden that often goes hand-in-hand with a degree is their top concern, according to The Princeton Review's 2020 College Hopes & Worries survey.

The Princeton Review polled close to 13,000 people between August 2019 and early March 2020. Eighty percent were college applicants, and 20% were parents of applicants.

For college-bound students and their parents, a whopping 99% of families said financial aid would be necessary to pay for college and 87% said it was "extremely necessary," according to The Princeton Review.

Already, the significant increase in the cost of college has outpaced both inflation and — even more starkly — family income over recent decades (see the chart below).

As the cost of a degree continues to rise, price has become a bigger consideration among students and parents,  Sallie Mae also found. Now, financial concerns govern decision-making for nearly 8 in 10 families, the education lender said, outweighing even academics when choosing a school.

Despite that, nearly all students and parents said college is worth the investment.

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