This is a season of high anxiety for college-bound students in the United States. Letters of acceptance and rejection have been arriving in mailboxes across America in recent weeks. Now, many students are busy agonizing over which school to attend, whether they can meet the challenge of college-level course work, and how to pay for the ever rising cost of tuition. Those are among the concerns covered in the Princeton Review's recently released College Hopes and Worries Survey. The annual report was based on a poll of some 5000 college-bound students and their parents, and it offers a revealing look at what is on their minds as they prepare for the milestone ahead.
The Princeton Review survey suggested that students and their parents do not always agree, at least when it comes to naming a dream college. Asked by the Princeton Review to pick the school they would most like to attend, if tuition or getting accepted were not an obstacle, students most often selected New York University, located in America's largest city. The favorite choice of parents was Princeton University.
Robert Franek is a Vice President at the Princeton Review, which publishes books, software and online materials to help students make transitions from high school to college to professional life. Mr. Franek says the popularity of schools like New York University reflects a growing trend among students.
"What we've found is that many students are more likely to want to study in an urban area than they were five or seven years ago," Franek says. "I think we've seen the student tastes change by thinking about curriculum development and then asking the practical questions of -- not only am I going to have a good experience in the classroom at these schools -- but what is it this school going to allow me to do outside of the classroom? Can they take an experiential learning opportunity or an internship in the city or town where that school is located?"
Tim Fahey, a high school junior from Springfield, Virginia, says location is a big factor for him in selecting a college. His top choices so far include Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Boston Universities, all located in urban or suburban areas. "I wouldn't want to be too rural," he explains. "I like inner city schools because there's lots to do. And then I would also like to see the class size and make sure you're going to get a top education, and that it's worth it."
While Tim says he is not too worried yet about applying to college, 59 percent of the students and parents polled by the Princeton Review rated the college application process "stressful" or "highly stressful."
For Laura Fletcher, who attends the very selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in suburban Washington, D.C., the past few months have been an emotional roller coaster. She is looking forward to attending Princeton University in the fall, but says that as soon as she sent off her application, she started worrying that she had not made the right choice. "It was almost like a defense mechanism, if I didn't think of Princeton as such a wonderful school, then I wouldn't be so disappointed if I got rejected. And then when I got accepted there was the moment of elation, and then all the doubts returned. But I've definitely returned to the place where yes, this is the right place for me. I made the right decision."
While 34 percent of those polled reported that getting in to the school of their choice was their biggest worry, paying for college came in second, at 29 percent. Tim Fahey's mother Celesta says cost is a leading concern for her. "If there is a school he really wants to get into, he has to understand that he would have to take out some college loans. We would try to help him, but if he would have to be in debt for the rest of his life, that would definitely be a big concern for us."
College tuition is rising at more than twice the rate of inflation in the United States, reports the Princeton Review. The average cost of attending a public U.S. college for four years is now a little more than $48,000. Private college tuition averages $116,000, and it can go much higher.
Princeton-bound student Laura Fletcher says her family can afford the tuition, but some of her friends aren't so fortunate. "One of the most painful experiences is watching my friends get accepted into the school they really want to go to, and they can't, because the financial packages aren't good enough. Or they're in that position of the middle class where they're not poor enough to be poor, but they're not rich enough to pay $170,000 to go to college."
But Robert Franek says there are many lesser-known schools that offer a top-quality education at an affordable price. The Princeton Review recently published the 2007 edition of America's Best Value Colleges, with profiles of 150 schools that provide what Mr. Franek calls "a great education with great quality of life. Even though some schools might have a huge sticker price," he says, "they're being very aggressive about giving out grant aid to kids. Those schools that have some heart-stopping sticker prices when you first look at them, could be schools that might give out half-tuition scholarships."
New College of Florida in Sarasota was named the country's best value public school, while Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, ranked highest among private schools. And Robert Franek says even more colleges and universities will be addressing the cost issue in the years ahead. "There are mandates at different schools, sometimes at the state level for a public school and sometimes a mandate from the university at the private school level."
Robert Franek also notes that the high school graduating class of 2009 is expected to be the largest in American history. "That will be just around three million high school students that can become possibly become college applicants for that year. Right now we're at about 2.2 or 2.3 million students. Many of those new students are first generation college students, so schools are getting very aggressive about making sure they are addressing that first generation college group, some of the fears they have around school in general and around financial aid."
And what do students most hope to get out of their hard-won college education? The Princeton Review also asked that question in its survey. And while some responded that they wanted a great overall education, or good training in a specific field, or a better-paying job after graduation, the highest percentage - 49 percent -- wanted their college years to be a well rounded, maturing life experience.