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Published: Jun 12, 2024 12 min read
Photo-illustration of a notebook page with doodles, stickers, and two young students.
Money; Getty Images; Shutterstock

Beverly Benfield has been looking at colleges for years. When she was little, her dad would pull over on family roadtrips so they could pile out and visit whatever college was nearby.

So when it came time for her to actually apply to college, Beverly knew exactly what she wanted: a nice library, a strong queer community, a cool town and a close proximity to nature. Emerson College ticked all those boxes. Twenty applications and a lot of deliberation later, Beverly made her decision to go to Boston. She felt good about it...

...until the day the enrollment deposit was due, when her family realized they couldn't afford it.

"I was prepping it in my head: 'I'm gonna go to Emerson, I'm gonna go to Emerson, I'm gonna go to Emerson,'" she says. "And then my parents were like, 'No, we can't do that.'"

Her mom and her dad were as heartbroken as she was — they'd watched as Beverly ordered Emerson merch and planned for her Atlanta high school's National College Decision Day celebration. But they just couldn't make the math work. Instead, Beverly made a last-minute switch to Oberlin College, where a cheaper cost of living and merit scholarships will save the family about $20,000 a year.

"I'm happy with my decision," she says now. "It's definitely just taken some adjusting."

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Beverly isn't the only 18-year-old who's had to juggle competing interests while choosing a college. Gen Z, which includes people born roughly between 1997 and 2012, is different from previous generations in many ways, and its approach to college selection is no exception. Forget flashy amenities like laundry service and nap pods: In recent years, surveys have found Gen Zers pay close attention to topical issues like how colleges handle gun control and access to reproductive care. They don't necessarily care if a college has prestige or a Quidditch team — they're focused on career development opportunities and mental health support.

But the newest class of college students is also extremely cost-conscious. They want to make sure the college where they'll spend four years and loads of money will both align with their ideals and pay off down the road. The result is a decision-making process in which families are being pushed to view the value — and values — of college in new ways.

Affordability reigns supreme

Every year, Laurie Kopp Weingarten asks the high schoolers she's working with at One-Stop College Counseling to write a paragraph titled "My Ideal College." They're supposed to rate college qualities that matter to them before Weingarten helps them come up with prospective schools.

The result is a list of up-to-the-minute admissions trends. And while some are unsurprising — teenagers reliably demand comfortable dorms, tasty dining-hall food and bathrooms they don't have to share — others stand out.

For instance, the New Jersey-based Weingarten says she's noticed an uptick in geographic limitations lately. Some students are flat-out refusing to consider colleges in conservative Southern or Midwestern states; others are putting heavy emphasis on diversity.

"I will occasionally see, like, 'Texas is good people.' That's in direct contrast to a lot of our students saying, 'I'm taking Texas schools off the list,'" she says. "It mostly seems to be related to politics ... I've never had so many students eliminate parts of the country like that." (A survey of prospective students last year supports what she's seeing: 1 in 4 students reported eliminating colleges for political reasons.)

At the same time, Weingarten's students are gravitating toward cities over rural areas because they think they'll provide better internship possibilities and, eventually, jobs. This tracks with other trends she's spotted, like the fact that many of them are drawn to entrepreneurship and aren't impressed by core curriculum that touts a broad, general education.

Underneath all of these contemporary considerations, though, is a tale as old as time: money.

The cost of college has surged — for four-year institutions, doubled — in the past 20 years. According to the College Board, the average published sticker price for tuition and fees at a public, in-state four-year university was $11,260 for the 2023-2024 academic year. Private colleges, meanwhile, posted an average tuition sticker price of $41,540. And that's before housing, food, textbooks, transportation and the like are added in.

Of course, not everyone pays that price. Tuition discount rates recently hit a record high, and federal and state aid can help offset the high costs. But "money does come into play," Weingarten says, often serving as a tiebreaker when her families — who often don't qualify for federal support and must rely on merit aid — are trying to choose between two schools.

"Some parents will be like, 'We just want them in a really good college, we're not going to worry about it,' and then all of a sudden, the numbers start coming in," she adds. "They kind of change their tune."

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'Am I going to be happy here?'

Money is absolutely the No. 1 concern in the Hammond, Indiana, school district, says college and career coordinator Lydia McNeiley. The population is dominated by minority and low-income families whose kids will be first-generation college students, so she's hyper-focused on getting them the resources they need to make an informed decision.

Speaking broadly, America's youth have come around on postsecondary education. In survey results released last June, 65% of respondents said they believed some education after high school is necessary. But they're worried about paying and the payoff. In a separate poll, only 53% of college-bound Gen Zers said they think they can afford college.

Still, McNeiley spends a lot of time talking to her students about fit factors beyond cost. That may sound counterintuitive, but because college is such a financial investment, finding the right fit for Hammond students has become more important than ever.

McNeiley teaches her students about Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions, which she says offer them a unique focus on cultural experiences, robust community support and the chance to be surrounded by students and faculty who share similar backgrounds. She walks them through the basics of office hours, dropping classes and where to find help in different languages. She surfaces colleges with robust LGBTQ+ resources and mental health programs that she knows will appeal to them.

Rather than defaulting to the school down the road, she wants the students to take the time to find a college that resonates with them.

Cost is critical, and choice of major is important, naturally. But beyond that, McNeiley says they need to ask, "Am I going to be happy here? Am I going to want to thrive here? Am I going to find my niche here?"

Doing the math

The choice to go to college, and where, now comes with an added layer of pressure due to the threat of student debt. Americans hold $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans: a burden that's made many question the true value of a degree.

That's why Nick Garzia, a real estate developer in Atlanta, talked about money with his daughter before she even started her college search.

Garzia says that because carrying debt can influence everything from where she'll live to the car she'll drive, he urged Sofie to weigh her college costs against the earnings from the profession she ultimately hopes to have.

For instance, "if you want to study something that's going to pay you $35,000 to $40,000 a year, there's no need to go to an $80,000-a-year college," he says. "[It's] understanding what you're likely going to earn, and then what you're probably going to have to borrow, and the terms of payback, et cetera."

As a result, 18-year-old Sofie says, her main criteria was whether potential colleges had solid architecture programs. She looked at colleges in the Southeast like Clemson University, the University of Tennessee and Belmont University, filling out a spreadsheet with pros and cons before ultimately settling on Auburn University in Alabama.

Not only is it just two hours away from home, but, crucially, it also offers a five-year architecture program ending in a professional degree. That means she doesn't necessarily have to go to grad school, which (hopefully) equals less debt — a bonus given "the way the economy is," she says.

College as a 'shared sacrifice'

As a politically active and very online group, Gen Z has been vocal about issues ranging from the environment to racial equality. There's a strong case that civic interests are becoming a more important factor in choosing a college today than in the past. And yet, as fledgling consumers, Gen Zers' college choices ultimately come down to finances.

Many of them see higher education as a springboard for their careers, though how they'll make it work looks different for different families.

For the Garzias, for example, college is going to be what they're calling a "shared sacrifice." They intend to pay for Auburn using a combination of savings, financial aid and contributions from Sofie, whom they expect to find a job and take out loans.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Stuckey is renting her house out on Airbnb to bring in some funds to pay for her daughter Beverly's college costs. She's also ditching her Hulu subscription, cooking at home more and shopping at Goodwill.

But it'll be well worth it to send Beverly to Oberlin, where she's looking forward to studying journalism and catching the occasional concert on campus (she's stoked because CupcakKe recently played there). And the Garzias are cheering on Sofie, who's hoping to join an a cappella group and maybe get into sports at Auburn.

After spreadsheets and hard conversations with their parents, campus visits and calculations, both are happy with their college choices. The only thing left to do now is to move in.

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