Study: How American Families Pay for College

How did you find the college that was the right fit for you? Maybe you knew you wanted to live in a big city, that the school had the best program in your field, or because your high school friends were going there. Today, most students are swayed by a different measurement of fit. A recent study by Sallie Mae found 69 percent of students chose colleges based on affordability. To make schools more affordable, 51 percent lived at home, 55 percent chose to live with a roommate, 50 percent increased their number of work hours, and 66 percent reduced spending.

Today, students pay for a 30 percent of their college education, up from 24 percent four years ago, and parents pay 37 percent, down from 45 percent. Students, more than their parents, believe their education will be an investment in their future and that it’s worth the financial stress.1

The recent NPR story “Families Make Big Changes to Pay for College,” shows how paying for an education is affecting today’s family. Maureen O’Brien earned her first degree in 1996, and after losing her job to outsourcing, returned to school to become a physician’s assistant. She took out loans for both degrees and is still paying both of them off. She also has a daughter who she encouraged to attend any college she wanted. After spending two years at the University of Vermont and paying more than $49,000 a year, her daughter was forced to transfer to a state college to finish her degree. Now, O’Brien’s younger son is entering his freshmen year of college at Arizona State University. O’Brien makes $93,000 a year as a physician’s assistant; however, one-third goes to student loans. She’s considering getting a second job so she can afford to put away money for retirement, savings, and her kids’ student loans.2

A college education should never be a regret. That more students are attending schools they can afford, budgeting, getting jobs, and being frugal about living situations, doesn’t need to be viewed as negative. This means more students are being financially responsible, living within their means, and taking control of their finances earlier in life. More students are paying for more of their tuition, which means more students are willing to make an investment in their education and their future.

LifeBound’s book Dollars and Sense: How to Be Smart About Money can help parents and students navigate college finances and start financial discussions about college, career, and life. This book gives students the big picture of saving, spending, and budgeting throughout their lives and encourages them to use their financial savvy to make smart decisions now and for tomorrow.

For more statistics from the Sallie Mae study, see their infograph A Snapshot of How America Pays for College 2012.


1“Families Make Big Changes to Pay for College,” by Tasnim Shamma. 2 August. 2012. NPR. Accessed on 3 August 2012.

2“How America Pays for College 2012: A National Study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos.”

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