High School Students and Parents Struggle to Estimate the Cost of College, According to Report

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — While many high school students would like to one day earn a college degree, many students are misinformed about the cost of college and these misconceptions may affect student decisions about whether and where to attend. In a new report commissioned by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), education researcher Erin Dunlop Velez from the nonprofit research institute RTI International describes the accuracy of students’ and parents’ college cost estimates over time.

The report, What High Schoolers and Their Parents Know about Public 4-Year Tuition and Fees in Their State, finds that most students and parents overestimate the cost of college, and that this misinformation may be informing their later college-going decisions. The report analyzed previously collected data from NCES’s High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09).

“We were surprised to find how many students and parents were completely uninformed about how much a public in-state school in their state costs,” said Velez, the lead author. “What was worse, high school juniors were no more informed than freshman. We still found many students estimating tuition costs to be two- and three-times what they actually were.”

Analysis of these data found 57 percent of 9th-graders overestimated tuition and fees by more than 25 percent and 32 percent underestimated tuition and fees by more than 25 percent. Additionally, students remained unsure about how much college costs throughout high school. When students were asked about their confidence in the tuition estimate they provided in 9th grade, 27 percent reported that they were not at all confident that they estimated accurately. Two years later, when students were in 11th grade, 51 percent said they did not know the cost of tuition and fees at 4-year public colleges in their state.

The study also indicates that student misconceptions about college costs may be related to their eventual college-going. Between 9th and 11th grades, students’ overestimates of college costs became larger. Over the same time, more students started to perceive college as unaffordable. One-quarter of 9th-graders perceived college as affordable, while two years later, when students had larger overestimates of college costs, one-third of students reported the same. At the same time students’ perceptions of college unaffordability were increasing, students were less likely to plan to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program. The percentage of students who planned to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program declined from 51 percent when students were in 9th grade to 45 percent after they had completed high school.

While most students overestimated college costs, many students underestimated costs as well. Either mistake may lead to poor postsecondary outcomes for students. Students who overestimate may be less likely to choose to apply and attend college, while students who underestimate costs may be less likely to afford college, once they arrive. Either way, having an accurate idea of the true cost of college can insure students make informed decisions about whether and where to attend, and how much to borrow.

RTI education researcher Erin Dunlop Velez