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College & Workforce Readiness

Low-Income Students Are More Likely to Underestimate Cost of College

By Catherine Gewertz — October 10, 2018 1 min read
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High school students often think college costs more than it really does, and that misinformation can tamp down their aspirations. A new report shows that lower-income students run a particularly high risk of misunderstanding the cost of college.

In a paper released Wednesday, the National Center for Education Statistics examined students’ answers to questions in a large federal survey that tracked them through high school. Their estimates of the cost of tuition and fees at four-year public colleges in their states tracked closely with their socioeconomic backgrounds.

The wealthier 9th graders tended to overestimate those costs, and their lower-income peers tended to underestimate them.

Racial patterns emerged in students’ perceptions of college cost, too. White, Hispanic, and Asian students were more likely to overestimate college cost. Black students were as likely to overestimate as to underestimate the cost.

Students don’t seem any better equipped to estimate college costs in 11th grade than they were in 9th grade. The NCES paper shows that 57 percent of the 9th graders overestimated tuition and fees by more than 25 percent. Another 32 percent underestimated those costs by more than 25 percent.

The 11th graders were more likely to overestimate college costs than were the 9th graders. And 51 percent of those 11th grade students said they didn’t know how much tuition and fees cost at four-year public colleges in their state.

In 9th grade, one-quarter of the students said they didn’t think college was affordable. By 11th grade, that proportion had risen to one-third.

Fifty-one percent of the 9th graders in the study reported that they planned to earn bachelor’s degrees. But three years later, as seniors, only 45 percent said four-year degrees were part of their plans.

Previous research has shown that uncertainty about the cost of college and the availability of financial aid is associated with lower enrollments among low-income and minority students. That uncertainty can also narrow the range of schools those students apply to.

Those dynamics can affect students’ postsecondary outcomes. Choosing two-year or less-selective colleges, for instance, reduces their likelihood of earning degrees.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.