Americans are borrowing less and paying more out of pocket to cover college costs, Sallie Mae, a financial services company specializing in education, says in a report released Thursday.
Sarah Ducich, a senior vice president at Sallie Mae and a co-author of the report by Ipsos Public Affairs, said tuition is rising but parents are keeping college spending nearly constant by cutting costs of things like housing and textbooks.
In a reversal of a recent trend, more of the college cost in 2013-2014 — 42% — was covered by parents' or students' income or savings. That's up from 40% last year. That share had been declining for three years.
"We always assumed we would pay out of pocket," said Larry Spero of Durham, N.C. Spero's son Austin will be a high school senior this fall. The family income is too high for him to qualify for federal financial aid.
Spero said the family could pay for Austin to attend the University of North Carolina, but he would need a scholarship to attend a more expensive private school. Either way, Spero said, Austin, an aspiring actor, will probably work to pay some of his costs.
Last year, families borrowed money to pay 27% of college costs. This year: 22%.
Ducich attributes the change to several elements. Colleges are offering more scholarships. Families are looking at money-saving options, like having students live at home or rent textbooks. Taylor Manning, 19, who will be a senior at Florida Southern College this fall, said she saved $500 by choosing a cheaper meal plan.
Also, enrollment at two-year colleges is at its highest since the annual study began seven years ago, indicating that families are considering all their options.
Another likely factor, according to Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs: Families are no longer coping with a recession.
"The economy went down the tubes," Young said. "Those families that already had their children at more expensive options decided to weather it. They dipped into piggy banks or took out a loan to cover the last one to three years. What we saw was the use of borrowing to cover that gap."
Ducich said Americans overwhelmingly agree that college is a good investment. This year, eight out of 10 families said they were willing to stretch financially to pay for college.
"They are very resilient and clever and determined to make college work," Ducich said. "We can have a lot of policy debates in Washington, but families are finding ways."
Ipsos Public Affairs interviewed 801 parents of 18- to 24-year-old undergraduates and 800 students ages 18-24 by telephone from April 4 through May 15, 2014.