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Photograph by Jeff Harris for MONEY

No Matter Who’s Paying the Bill, College Is More Expensive Than You Think

You’ve read the scary headlines about tuition hikes and seen the surveys of families concerned about what college costs. Maybe you’ve even played around with the net price calculator on a college’s website.

You’re well aware that higher ed can be a high-priced proposition these days.

But brace yourself, future college students and parents: It could be even more expensive than you think.

In fact, half of today's students and the parents of current ones report that college costs more than they expected, according to a new national survey by MONEY and Barnes & Noble College. Almost a quarter of the parents say it costs much more.

The survey, which focused on students at four-year colleges and the parents of current students and recent graduates, found that regardless of who’s paying the bursar bill, college costs weigh heavily on both groups. Some 63% of students and 55% of parents of current students say they eliminated a college from consideration because of its cost.

"Students definitely are concerned and very aware of the cost of college," says Lisa Malat, vice president and chief marketing officer at Barnes & Noble College.

And while most families are happy with the colleges they eventually pick, the students and parents who say they’re dissatisfied and want to switch schools both give “too expensive” as their biggest reason.

But money isn’t everything

While short-term financial concerns may loom large in their thinking, most parents and students still manage to see beyond the dollar signs to what they perceive as the real, long-term benefits of college.

For example, a higher proportion agree that "preparing for a fulfilling career" is a valuable benefit of a college education, compared to "preparing for a high-paying career." Some 90% of students and 93% of current students' parents cite "fulfilling career," compared with just 68% of the students and 69% of the parents citing a "high-paying" one.

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Those results support previous surveys on millennial attitudes conducted by Barnes & Noble College that found job satisfaction is just as important—if not more important—than earning a lot of money, Malat says.

Of course, it’s easy for a 20-year-old college student to prioritize a fulfilling job when there’s no salary range in question, notes Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst with New America's Educational Policy Program.

“They don’t think about it as living with a fulfilling career in poverty,” says Fishman, who has also conducted surveys about what influences students in deciding where to attend college.

The results might have been more mixed, she says, if respondents had to weigh an unfulfilling career with an average salary of, say, $50,000 versus a more fulfilling career where average salaries are around $25,000.

More survey results: Proof Nobody Really Understands How Expensive College Actually Is

Even so, a higher proportion of the recent-grad parents, most of whose students are now out in the workforce and earning real-world salaries, also see a fulfilling career as important than say the same for a high-paying one, albeit by a slimmer margin. Some 89% of recent-grad parents cite fulfilling career as being of high value, compared with 72% for a high-paying one.

Who’s paying—and how?

While the two generations may see eye to eye on some matters, they are wide apart on many others.

Case in point: Their perceptions of who pays for their college-related expenses and how much they pay.

Each group, in fact, thinks that it's covering a greater share of the tab:

  • 70% of parents say they pay for their student’s travel between home and school, compared with just 40% of students who say their parents pay.
  • 62% of parents say they pay for books and supplies, compared to just 30% of students who think their parents pay.
  • 32% of parents say they foot the bill for their students' extracurricular activities, while just 8% of students say their parents pay.

And while students know how expensive college can be, many seem unaware of the sacrifices their families have had to make in order to send them, Malat observes. For example:

  • 27% of students say their parents didn’t make any financial sacrifices. Only 9% of parents say they haven’t sacrificed.
  • 59% of parents say they cut back on major purchases, while only 33% of students say their parents cut back in that area.
  • 54% of parents say they cut back on vacations, while only 28% of students think their parents cut back.
  • And in a particularly ominous finding for anyone concerned about Americans’ retirement readiness: 41% of parents say they cut back on retirement savings to pay for college, but only 17% of students seemed to notice.

A question of priorities

The survey also revealed some big differences in the factors students and parents consider important in choosing a college in the first place. While both consider cost and financial aid important, they were divided on other matters.

For example, 80% of parents rate a college's career services as important, compared with 68% of students.

Parents also rate school reputation, earning potential, and student-to-faculty ratio higher than students do.

Students, meanwhile, rate the geographic location, extracurricular activities, and whether family members or friends attended the school as more important than their parents do.

And, no big surprise here: Students also put a greater weight on a school's male-female ratio, with 22% considering it important, compared with just 9% of parents.

Happy endings, mostly

For all the angst that families go through in choosing a college and figuring out how to pay for it, they’re usually satisfied with the end result: Roughly 9 out of 10 of all respondents in the MONEY/Barnes & Noble College survey give their college an “A” or “B” for overall value.

And it turns out that parents and students who pay less for college actually tend to be more satisfied than those who pay more. For example, 50% of students and 57% of parents who pay under $20,000 a year give their college an "A" for overall value, while just 35% of students and 48% of parents who pay more than $20,000 say the same.

That’s an encouraging development if it means families are starting to question the assumption that what costs more must be better, says Alison Kadlec, director of higher education and workforce programs for Public Agenda, which regularly surveys Americans on their views on college.

Not everybody’s a satisfied college customer, of course. But most schools seem to do a good job of delivering value—or at least making people think they do. A mere 2% of students and 0% of parents give their school a grade of “D” or lower.

Notes: National online survey of 1,100 current U.S. four-year college students ages 1824, 1,583 parents of current U.S. four-year college students, and 772 parents whose child graduated from a U.S. four-year college between 2011 and 2015. Survey was conducted April 28–May 5, 2016, by Barnes & Noble College; margin of error: +/–3.1 points for sample of current college students and parents of current college students; margin of error: +/3.7 points for parents of college graduates.

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