College students today face undeniably difficult pressures. They must confront college costs that have skyrocketed over the past several decades and they must navigate earning an education during a global pandemic.
According to Citizens' Annual Student Lending survey of 2,019 college students and their parents conducted June 15 through 26, these realities are top of mind. An estimated 70% of current college students say that concerns around college affordability had a moderate or high impact on fall 2021 enrollment plans.
Public health concerns about coronavirus have subsided slightly since last year. In 2020, 53% of current college students said they worried about their safety due to the pandemic. Still, 36% of current college students said such concerns had a high impact on their fall 2021 plans.
"Our annual survey has consistently shown that young adults are worried about their future and the cost of college," says Christine Roberts, head of student lending at Citizens. "We are seeing families embracing discussions around the cost of college earlier and it remains critical for financial institutions to continue to support their customers as they navigate these difficult family conversations."
Half of families tell Citizens they had conversations about paying for college during their students' first two years of high school or earlier, and 20% say they had those discussions in 8th grade or prior.
While the pandemic may have temporarily slowed rising college costs, 56% of respondents say they expect their costs (including tuition, room and board, meal plans, travel and activities) to increase this year by $8,700, on average.
Over the past 10 years, college costs have increased by roughly 25% and U.S. student debt has increased by more than 100%. Today, 44.7 million borrowers collectively owe more than $1.7 trillion dollars in student debt.
The pandemic may also impact how many years students can expect to be in school.
A 2020 survey of 3,941 students pursuing a bachelor's and 2,064 students pursuing an associate degree by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that roughly half of students think it is likely that Covid-19 will negatively impact their ability to complete their program.
Among students earning a bachelor's degree, 49% of students said the pandemic would likely or very likely impact their ability to graduate, while an even greater 56% of those earning an associate's degree said the same.
Currently, just 41% of first-time full-time college students earn a bachelor's degree in four years, and only 59% earn a bachelor's in six years. This means many students will need to finance more than the expected four years to earn a bachelor's degree and millions will take on debt and still not earn a diploma.
Unfortunately, student loan borrowers who fail to graduate often struggle the most financially. In fact, The default rate among borrowers who didn't complete their degree is three times as high as the rate for borrowers who did earn a diploma.
In addition to public health and affordability concerns, students also stressed that what they wanted to study is a top priority. Fifty-five percent of college students tell Citizens that a college having a specific degree program they were interested in was a "must-have" when choosing where to enroll.