A new survey of college students and their parents finds that at least 14 percent of families borrowed the entire cost of the most recent academic year. In addition, the Gallup survey of about 700 students and 700 parents found that most families cobbled together the funds they needed for college last year from a variety of sources—a little from savings, perhaps a scholarship or two, a little from paychecks, and some loans.
"How America Pays for College," which was funded by student lending giant Sallie Mae and released this week, found that students, on average, borrowed and worked enough for about a third of their college costs last year. And nearly 40 percent of parents were able to kick out something from their paychecks to pay for schooling. The average amount parents contributed from their income was $5,815, or nearly $500 a month.
More than 20 percent of families got other relatives or friends to contribute something to their college funds. About 40 percent of families (not surprisingly, mostly wealthy families) were able to pay for college last year without having to borrow a penny.
Many of the rest, unfortunately, ended up taking out unnecessarily expensive loans. About 25 percent of middle-income families—those earning anywhere from $35,000 to $100,000 a year—didn't fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and thus never had a chance for federal grants or low-rate federal loans, or any of the millions of dollars' worth of state and private scholarships that require the form. And 3 percent of parents and students put at least some of their college bills on their credit cards, one of the most expensive ways to borrow.
"Any tuition dollar charged to a credit card is a dollar too much," said Tom Joyce, a Sallie Mae spokesman. He noted that few of the credit-card chargers said they used plastic to, say, earn airline miles. Instead, they turned to plastic to raise cash quickly in an emergency or because they thought the rate was lower than other alternatives. Federally backed Stafford student loans can charge an annual percentage rate of no more than 7.2 percent, which is much lower than most credit cards.
The findings should add strength to calls to make applying for financial aid easier and simpler, says Sandy Baum, a Skidmore economist and financial aid researcher for the College Board.