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A survey from Pew Research Center found that 77% of American adults believe paying for college education would be difficult for themselves or their family. Tuition costs have skyrocketed over the past few decades while median incomes have remained relatively flat, making affording college increasingly challenging for many households.

The survey of 4,218 U.S. adults, conducted February 21-March 4, 2019, explored public views on student debt, college affordability, and the student loan system. The large percentage of individuals who anticipate college payments being a struggle highlights affordability as a pressing concern. Not only would paying for their own or a family member’s college education be hard for the majority, but 55% think it will be either “very difficult” or “impossible.”

College affordability fears are well-founded given how much more expensive college has become. After adjusting for inflation, tuition at four-year public colleges has increased by over 300% since 1971. Student loan debt, now over $1.5 trillion, continues to rise rapidly as high tuition compels students to borrow more. Defaulting on student loans can also damage credit scores and future opportunities, creating a cycle of debt that is hard to escape.

Disparities in preparedness for college costs emerge along socioeconomic lines. Nearly equal shares of lower- (77%) and middle-income (76%) adults think college would be hard to afford, compared with 60% of upper-income adults. Without targeted support, the wealth gap in access to and opportunities through higher education is likely to persist.

Affordability remains an obstacle preventing many Americans from obtaining a college credential. Compelling solutions are urgently needed to make college accessible and affordable, unlock potential, and expand social mobility and prosperity. By making higher education more feasible and equitable, the future can be brighter for individuals, communities, and society overall.

In conclusion, the survey findings highlight how cost has become a barrier, not a benefit, of college attainment for most. Ensuring college affordability and access requires driven advocacy, innovation, and policy changes to meet this challenge and fulfill the promise of opportunity that college represents.


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