Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Tim Grant interviewed CSF Chair Vivian Tsai in a Sunday Business feature on CSF’s 14th Annual Youth Survey, in “Shift in perspective: High school students embrace college post pandemic” sharing key findings from the survey.

August 14, 2023

Shift in perspective: High school students embrace college post-pandemic

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The four-year college experience is back in style — according to a recent national survey.

Washington, D.C.-based College Savings Foundation’s 14th annual survey of 1,000 high school students suggests that pandemic-era sentiments have shifted: Students now say they want the benefits of attending college.

“For a couple of years, the knee-jerk reaction was that college isn’t worth all that,” said Vivian Tsai, chair of the College Savings Foundation, “simply because what we saw during COVID was so extreme, with students losing out on a lot of the lifestyle components of college.”

Per the survey:

The majority — 73% — said the traditional college experience will help create long-term friends and future contacts; 70% said it will be a valuable educational credential over the course of their lives; and 71% wanted access to college clubs, sports and campus activities.

The survey of high school sophomores, juniors and seniors illustrates that many of them want to get back on the path of traditional college, but with a strong focus on work readiness.

“They want the practical aspects of studying with a focus on a job after college,” Ms. Tsai said. “But with an interest in the soft skills that a traditional college provides — which is that social network.”

Meaning: “The ability to build a lifelong network and experiences away from home, but in a college environment,” she said. “We’ve heard that more this year than we have in several, several years.”

Debt aversion

The newest crop of incoming college freshmen are leery of taking on debt, and willing to make changes to avoid it.

An aversion to debt is the reason that about one in five — 21% — are changing their higher education choices. Sixty-seven percent of all high school students surveyed said they are very concerned or somewhat concerned about paying back student loans, and 41% said they had to change their higher education choices due to costs.

Of those, 33% are choosing a state school, 29% are going to a community college, and 16% will pursue a technical and career education, according to the survey.

“Every day, I see the 15-, 16- and 17-year-old workers tucking money away and talking about using it for their education,” Ms. Tsai said. “And if you compare that to even 10 years ago, it’s very different. Kids weren’t contributing. They were working for their pocket money. They weren’t working and saving for their education.

“They weren’t necessarily contributing to the degree they were pursuing.”

Students during a graduation ceremony at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn., in this 2017 file image.(Joe Buglewicz/The New York Times)

Two-year options

Attitudes about four-year colleges are rebounding at the same time that community college is gaining more acceptance as a higher education alternative.

“You will always have that cohort of students pursuing community college because not everyone wants to invest four years of their lives in school,” Ms. Tsai said. “And many people can’t afford it. Maybe two years is all they can afford. I think people have become more comfortable with the community college and technical college options.”

More high school students have emerged from the pandemic with a mindset to work and save for their education, being aware of the national discussion around rising student loan debt and loan forgiveness.

According to the survey: 50% of them are saving now; 71% have put away between $1,000 and $5,000 for college; 17% have more than $5,000 saved.

Work and study

More than half of high school students — 58% — have a job now to help earn money for education costs. A whopping 19% of high school students — about 1 in 5 — plan on working full-time while attending higher education classes, while 58% plan to work part-time.

College financing expert Mark Kantrowitz said there are some predictable pitfalls that come with working too much in college.

“If you work a full-time job, you are half as likely to graduate within six years with a bachelor’s degree as compared with someone who works 12 hours or less a week,” said Mr. Kantrowitz, author of Who Graduates From College? Who Doesn’t? “So, a few hours a week might actually improve your graduation rate. But every hour beyond 12 takes away from academics that then has a negative impact on college completion. 

“A little is good. A lot may be too much.”

Mr. Kantrowitz said he’s also seeing attitudes rebound concerning the value of four-year degrees.

“COVID had a negative impact, and now that we are in recovery of it, people are starting to think positively about a college education again,” he said. “It is the most reliable path to the middle class. People who have a college degree tend to have a higher income than people who don’t have a college degree.”

Public college is the top destination for high school seniors, juniors and sophomores.

Forty percent plan on entering public colleges; 19% will go to community college; 14% will attend a private college; and 12% will pursue career and technical education.

“The key is to find a college that’s a good fit that isn’t too expensive,” Mr. Kantrowitz said. “So, an in-state public college is often your best option.” What you major in counts, he said, especially for those who are borrowing money to pay for college.

“Major in a field that will be lucrative enough so that you can afford to pay back the debt,” Mr. Kantrowitz said. “Aim to have total student loan debt at graduation that is less than your annual starting salary.”

529 plans

The College Savings Foundation is a nonprofit trade group for 529 plan program managers, state sponsors and financial services firms across the nation that manage 529 investment accounts.

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future education costs. The 529 plans, legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” are sponsored by states, state agencies, or education institutions. Every state in the country has at least one 529 plan.

Pennsylvania allows a tax deduction for any contribution — family or non-family — to 529 plans up to the annual gift exclusion amount — $15,000 per contributor, or $30,000 for a married couple. Pennsylvania rules are considered generous because the state gives contributors the deduction regardless of whether it is to a Pennsylvania plan or an out-of-state plan.

State Treasurer Stacy Garrity last week sweetened the 529 option even more by waiving some and reducing other fees that families pay for their accounts, effective Sept. 1. Her office estimates that families will save a total of $800,000 this year due to a 1.25 basis point reduction in operational support fees and a state fee reduction of 0.5 basis points on the PA 529 Investment Plan.

All asset-based fees will be waived for PA 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan account owners. Those accounts allow families to lock in today’s tuition rates to meet tomorrow’s tuition costs at institutions ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities.

Families in Pennsylvania have saved more than $7 billion for future education expenses in a total of 573,000 PA 529 accounts, according to the Pennsylvania Treasury. According to ISS Market Intelligence, as of March 2023, there were 15.2 million 529 savings plan accounts across the U.S. with a total of $408

billion in assets that families have set aside for future higher education expenses.

Tim Grant: or 412-779-5834 

First Published August 14, 2023, 5:30am