How are we paying for college?

Remember last year's Sallie Mae report on paying for college?

There's another one out today.

Here's a summary and some Minnesota comments:

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  • More confidence in college. The percentage of students who "strongly agreed" that college is an investment in the future rose from 84 percent last year to 90 percent this year. And this year more of them agreed -- 70 percent compared to 63 percent -- that college is necessary both for entrance into their field of work and for a bigger paycheck.

  • More belt-tightening.Almost everyone surveyed said they'd taken steps to cut costs, such as going to lower-cost colleges, living at home or going to school part-time instead of full-time.Lesley Lydell, research and policy analyst at the state Office of Higher Education, said that's true in Minnesota. "Students across income spectrums select to go to less expensive college," she said. "We know there has been an increase for last couple of semesters at MnSCU institutions. A lot are at capacity if not exceeding capacity." Minnesota enrollment data may not be current to the report, but does show enrollment growing at MnSCU colleges and universities at about 2.2-2.3 percent from 2009-2010, while the private nonprofits' grew at about .89 percent. "I think we’ve seen a lot of enrollment demand has really been growing across the board, and we don’t think it's due to lack of options for students."

  • Families paid.Mom and Dad's income, savings and loans were the biggest source of funds (37 percent of the total) for college expenses. Students paid about a quarter -- 11 percent through their own income and savings and 15 percent through loans. Lydell said a recent state report shows students "are working more hours, boosting their earning potential." Private admissions consultant Todd Johnson, owner of College Admissions Partners, said that the national loan average has so far been $20,000 to $22,000. "Now that's creeping up into the $25,000 range, and I suspect it'll be in the upper 20s and lower 30s in a few years. For a student coming out of school into a typical job ... $30,000 is starting to get a little iffy. You're starting to have to give up some things."

  • They paid less. Families reported they paid about 9 percent less on average for college than the year before. Grants and scholarships covered a third of college costs in 2010-2011, instead of last year's quarter or so of the cost. And 67 percent of families got them -- up from 55 percent last year. Middle- and upper-income families accounted for the much of this. (Minnesota colleges and universities are also giving out more grants, Lydell said. Though the report indicated a decrease in borrowing, in Minnesota it's been increasing in the past few years, she said.) Students also appear to be planning for college earlier. They're cutting costs by coming into college with more credits from Advanced Placement and dual enrollment programs (college classes while in high school) than before. And more students are going to community colleges and tranferring to a university. In 2010, 23,500 students were in dual enrollment programs, up from 20,000 in 2007. That said, consultant Johnson said that even at those colleges that offer good financial aid, the amount of borrowing is increasing. "We used to see $4,000 to $5,000 in loans," he said. "Now we're seeing $7,000 to $8,000."

  • They got clued into the FAFSA. It's the first time the study saw an increase in the number of families who filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) -- 80 percent this year compared to 72 percent the previous year. Most of that was among middle- and high-income families. "It shows that students are really understanding that they need to file it not just for grants but also for loans," Lydell said. But it may also "does raise concerns" that people are needing financial aid more.