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Report Details Growing Middle Class College Squeeze

Americans still think college is a worthwhile investment, but they are getting more creative in their efforts to pay for it, a new report from Sallie Mae indicates.

That means paying for a greater share of college costs out of pocket, and trying to take out fewer loans.

In a reversal of trends stretching back several years, in 2014 42 percent of college costs were covered by out-of-pocket spending by either students or their parents, an increase from 38 percent in 2013 and the highest amount seen since 2010. Loans, meanwhile, covered 22 percent of the typical college students’ costs, down from 27 percent last year.

The poll shows a continuing squeeze for the middle class when it comes to college education, however. Those with middling incomes were the only group that paid over 25 percent of college costs through loans, while high-income families could rely more on out-of-pocket spending and low-income families attracted more scholarships and grants.

To save money, new students are increasingly exploiting alternatives to the standard college experience. More students than ever, for instance, are starting their college years at less expensive two-year schools rather than four-year ones. 34 percent of new students in the 2013-14 school year started at public two-year colleges (with a handful attending private two-years as well), up from 23 percent in 2010. Four-year schools, meanwhile, dropped from 73 to 63 percent of students.

Other frugal behaviors are on the rise as well. Compared to last year, students said they were more likely to take on extra roommates, accelerate their studies, or choose a school closer to home in order to cut down on expenses.

Despite costs that continue to rise faster than inflation, almost everybody continues to view college as a sound investment. Only 31 percent of surveyed individuals said they considered forgoing college due to its cost, while over 90 percent saw a degree as an investment in their future and over 85 percent said a degree was needed for the job they desired. 80 percent said it was better to borrow money than not attend college, and nearly 60 percent said it was worthwhile to attend college for the intellectual and social experience regardless of its effect on their future earnings.

The survey was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, which interviewed about 1600 parents and students to assemble its data set.

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