Most high school students misjudge college costs, report finds

Many high school students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, are unclear about the cost of postsecondary education, a new study finds. The researchers say these misconceptions are concerning, given that “uncertainty about college costs and the availability of financial aid has been associated with under-enrollment among low-income and minority students.”

Conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics with RTI International, the survey explored how accurately ninth graders and their parents estimated the tuition and fees at public four-year institutions in their state. The researchers also explored perceptions of college affordability, plans to attend college, and whether students’ and parents’ confidence in their estimates had changed by the time they reached eleventh grade.

Over- and underestimates varied by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status

The survey showed that only 11 percent of ninth graders’ cost estimates were close to the actual amount, while 57 percent overestimated the costs by more than 25 percent; 32 percent underestimated the cost by more than 25 percent. Asian, Hispanic (including Latinx), and white students were more likely to overestimate tuition and fees, while Black students underestimated them. Analyzing the responses by socioeconomic status, the researchers found that 68 percent of the wealthiest ninth graders overestimated costs, while 45 percent of the lowest-income students underestimated them. Many of these students were guessing: 27 percent of ninth graders said they were “not at all confident” about their estimates, reports Inside Higher Ed.

As students progressed through high school, the numbers did not improve. Eleventh graders were more likely to overestimate college fees than their ninth grade peers; 51 percent of eleventh graders admitted that they had no idea how much their local public universities cost.

Inside Higher Ed notes that this uncertainty poses “a major challenge for those trying to improve college-going rates.” The survey results indicate that one-quarter of ninth graders did not believe college was affordable; that number rose to one-third once those students reached eleventh grade. The percentage of students who planned to enroll in four-year institutions decreased, as well.

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