What weighs most on students and parents choosing among colleges? Is it premier faculty, a prestigious reputation or an engaged and exciting student body? According to respondents in the Princeton Review's "Hopes and Worries" survey, it's potential debt load.
Some 39 percent, the plurality, said they were most concerned that their college degree and the associated bills not sink them into hopeless debt. Previously, students were more concerned that they couldn't pay for their "dream schools."
The data highlights the serious concerns of a generation entering a marketplace that devalues their degrees and could signal a turning point in the higher education marketplace. While the news is unlikely to shake strategic thinking among the country's top-tier institutions -- currently enjoying record selectivity and runaway status in world reputation rankings -- it could serve as a huge hint to universities seeking a competitive foothold in the higher education sector, particularly smaller private colleges and middling state public education systems.
Since 89 percent of survey respondents rated financial aid as "very" necessary to pay for college -- and within that cohort 66 percent consider it "extremely" necessary -- colleges are likely to focus on the value proposition they can offer students.
Even credit reporting agency Moody's has joined a national chorus, which includes President Barack Obama, calling for colleges to cut students' costs while improving operating efficiency. The New York Times reported that Moody's rated the higher education sector's outlook as negative, though it continued to issue top credit rankings to the country's top institutions.
The survey also lends evidence to the priorities of thought leaders within education who identify return on investment as the chief concern among students, rather than quality of education or exposure to new ideas. Some 51 percent of student and parents surveyed said a better job and higher income were the biggest benefits of a college degree.