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UCLA report shows cost larger factor in college choice

By Christopher Hurley

March 7, 2014 1:21 a.m.

The cost of college is becoming one of the biggest concerns for high school students applying to college, according to a report released Wednesday by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.

In five to 10 years, affordability will likely be as important to students as a college’s academic reputation in their college decisions, in many cases even leading them to forgo their first choice, said Kevin Eagan, interim managing director of the institute.

The Higher Education Research Institute surveyed 165,743 incoming, full-time students entering 234 four-year universities of varying levels of selectivity and type.

Cost considerations are increasingly weighing on students’ enrollment choices. According to the report, with 64 percent of students rating the academic reputation of the college they were applying to as “very important.”

Almost 49 percent of those surveyed ranked the financial aid package as “very important,” as compared to almost 34 percent just ten years ago in 2004, according to the report.

Financial aid was even more important to first-generation college students, with almost 54 percent saying the financial aid package was “very important,” as opposed to the almost 44 percent of continuing generation students who said the same.

“First-generation students do not want to create a financial burden for their families, who know less about the complex financial aid forms (and) details of loans and tax creditbenefits, which do not ease the burden of initial out-of-pocket costs,” said Sylvia Hurtado, Higher Education Research Institute director, in a statement.

Eagan said the most surprising aspect of the report to him was how fast affordability has become an issue for students in recent years.

Students are acting more like consumers when it comes to education, looking for deals to reduce out-of-pocket costs or debt, Eagan said.

He added that many of the rising costs are attributable to recent decreases in state and federal funding for higher education.

“Both federal and state governments need to direct more money toward public university systems to make them more affordable,” Eagan said.

Several UCLA students said they passed up chances to go to private and out-of-state schools to avoid debt. Erin Manalo, a first-year graduate student in public health, was considering schools like Columbia University, Emory University and George Washington University. But even without the scholarships and financial aid, UCLA was still about half the cost.

“I didn’t want to be in debt, but there were a lot of different factors in addition to that,” Manalo said. “But there are also schools less expensive than UCLA … I figured that the resources UCLA could offer would make up for it.”

Eagan said California’s recent initiatives to increase funding for higher education systems and freeze tuition for the University of California are encouraging, but they’re only a start.

“Only a very small pocket of schools, private at that, can afford to meet all the financial needs of its student body without the use of loans,” he said.

As a result, there has been a big rise in students pursuing “non-traditional” pathways to a degree, such as either taking community college courses before transferring to a four-year institution or taking them concurrently while at a four-year college to shorten the time to a degree, Eagan said.

The report also touches on the growing use of online education and its role in keeping education costs low.

Wednesday’s report found a disparity between the number of incoming students who made use of online education in high school – around 42 percent – and the number who think they will use it in college – only 6.5 percent.

California institutions have recently focused on online education as a solution to reduce costs for students. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brownallotted$10 million each to the University of California and California State University systems to expand the number of courses offered online as a way to make college more affordable.

But students have yet to come to the same conclusion, still largely preferring the traditional “brick and mortar” model of going to college, Eagan said.

While some students said they would take online courses in certain cases, many said they would miss having interaction with professors and their fellow students.

“Personally, I wouldn’t do online courses,” said Daniel Campos, a second-year psychology student. “It’s easier for me to understand when a professor is there in person. Online courses don’t provide that interaction.”

Contributing reports by Ariana Ricarte and Kelly Gu, Bruin reporters.

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