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Confused about the cost of going to college? Join the club.

Soaring tuition costs in the United States aren’t the only barrier to attending college these days. Many Americans struggle with a more basic task: simply determining how much a bachelor’s degree would cost them.

A new study from Gallup and the higher education foundation Lumina shows that a large majority of people remain convinced of the merits of going to college. But costs deter many from enrolling, as less than a quarter of respondents were able to estimate the cost of earning a bachelor’s degree to be within $5,000 of its actual price, according to the analysis.

Fog over tuition fees

Such confusion is particularly problematic as colleges raise the price of attendance to nearly six figures, often as a marketing ploy to signal their exclusivity. Because few students and their families actually pay that price, thanks to financial aid and other supports, focusing on that number can be misleading, experts note.

“People hear about $100,000, and then they assume that’s what college costs,” Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president of impact and planning, told CBS MoneyWatch. “This story becomes the myth of what it costs.”

Yet it’s also difficult for people to predict what college will cost from year to year, given that students must reapply for financial aid each year, while colleges often change their tuition and fees, she noted. This can be confusing for students, especially when they don’t have much wiggle room in their budget.

“Colleges are doing their students a disservice because there isn’t complete information on how much it costs,” Brown said. “The No. 1 recommendation is that institutions need to be more transparent about exactly what it will cost” to earn a degree.

This may partly explain why the majority of respondents were unable to accurately estimate the cost of attending college. The true cost of attending an in-state public college is about $15,000 a year, Gallup and Lumina said. But about half of those surveyed said they thought the price was less than $10,000 a year, while a third pegged it at more than $20,000 a year.

Both of these misperceptions can lead to poor results. For example, people who think college is more expensive than it actually is might be less likely to enroll, thereby missing out on crucial educational opportunities.

Meanwhile, “those who underestimate the cost may be more worrisome, because they are the ones who have to take out more loans,” Brown noted. “They think it won’t cost as much, and then they realize, ‘Oh, wait, I have to pay for housing, board, food and all these other things,’ and they’re the ones who have to take out more loans .

“It impacts everything”

The study, which surveyed nearly 14,000 people ranging from enrolled students to Americans who have never attended college, also highlights the negative impact of student debt on people’s lives.

About 7 in 10 people with student loans reported delaying at least one major milestone because of debt, ranging from buying a home to getting married. About 1 in 7 people said they put off getting married or having children because of their college loans, the study found.

“It’s really important to pay attention to, because if we want to have thriving communities, we can’t have people crippled by student debt,” Brown said. “If you can’t continue your normal activities because of this, then it’s a problem for our communities, and it impacts everything: it impacts our health, it impacts our democracy, it has an impact on our community life.”

Students struggle as university prices soar


Brown noted that it’s important to address student debt through new repayment plans or forgiveness, as the Biden administration is doing, but she added that there also needs to be a focus on control of the costs of university studies and greater transparency for students.

“College degrees are important to our current and future workforce. We know that more educated people are healthier, contribute more to our communities and are more satisfied in their jobs,” Brown said.

She added: “But it’s not affordable, and we need to get to the root cause of this problem and try to find ways to make it affordable and end this significant accumulation of student debt that is crippling so many people.”


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