WASHINGTON — No matter how many subjects they're acing, most college students these days find economics a grind. Tricky financial calculations influence everything from what school they attend and what major they choose to how quickly they finish their degrees — or whether they graduate at all.
Money problems, not bad grades, are the reason cited by most college students who have considered dropping out, an Associated Press-Viacom poll finds.
Almost six in 10 students rely on loans to help with college costs, and nearly half who do say they're uncomfortable with the debt. A majority of students at four-year colleges say they routinely feel at least a little worried about having enough money to make it through the week, according to the poll, conducted in partnership with Stanford University.
Scrimping has long been part of the college experience, of course, but tough times in the real world mean even tighter money on campus.
Recession-battered parents have less money to spend on their kids' tuition. Jobs that used to be waiting upon graduation aren't there anymore — consumed by the nation's 8.8 percent unemployment rate. And college prices keep going up, as states struggle with budget deficits. Average tuition, room and board rose to about $16,000 at in-state public schools this year and $37,000 at private schools.
Most college students — 84 percent — need more than one source of cash to keep up, the poll of people ages 18 to 24 found.
About two-thirds say they work part-time or more to help pay for college. That's supplemented by another popular source of funds: Mom and Dad. Six in 10 get help from parents. The same number rely on scholarships for part of the bill.
"For a while, I couldn't find a job, and it was like, 'How am I going to eat? And how am I going to get to school if I don't have gas?'" said Allyson Bure, 20, a nursing student who works two part-time jobs, as a clerk at a Fashion Bug store and as a hotel housekeeper.
Like 57 percent of college students surveyed, Bure depends on student loans. Including debt she racked up at another school, she expects to owe about $52,000 by the time she finishes her associate's degree at Trocaire College in East Aurora, N.Y. Then she hopes to transfer to a university.
Many students are uneasy about borrowing, with good reason. The U.S. Education Department says 7 percent of borrowers default within two years of beginning repayment on loans that can stretch for a decade or more. Average student loan debt tops $23,000.
Bure's confident that she'll earn enough to pay off her loans. She's studying to become a nurse anesthetist, a job that can pay well over $100,000 per year. "I'll be secure," she predicts.
Despite the rising costs, 85 percent of students and recent grads say college is worth the time and money. In overwhelming numbers, they express satisfaction with the education they've received. And they have wide expectations for that education: Most say it's very or extremely important that colleges broaden students' knowledge and expand their minds, help them gain life skills, expose them to new experiences and train them for a career.
Nine out of 10 expect to find a job in their field. And for most, that's the bottom line. Fifty-five percent say an education that focuses on success in the working world is more valuable than one focused on general knowledge and critical thinking.
With that pragmatic attitude, many treat education like a commodity to be shaped to fit their needs and budgets.
Most college students say cost was a big factor in determining where they applied and which school they ended up attending. A hefty majority — 86 percent — say it's worthwhile to switch programs if you're not getting exactly what you want from a school. A third said they added another major to increase their options after graduation.
Three-fourths say it's more important to take the time to get exactly what they want from their education than to finish within the traditional four years, and a quarter who have finished took extra time.
On the other hand, lots of students are racing to the finish in order to save money.
About four in 10 college students hope to graduate in less than four years. To get a jump start, 58 percent of students took college-credit courses in high school. And about half earned credits at a community college before moving on to a more expensive bachelor's degree program.
That's what Falma Habbaba is doing. Once she's finished two years at Cuyamaca College, she plans to transfer to nearby San Diego State University. Half of the college students surveyed, including Habbaba, hope to continue their educations beyond a four-year degree. In her case, it's law school that beckons.
Habbaba, 18, has been relying on grants and a part-time job as a restaurant hostess to pay her way, and she worries about finding enough money to finish her schooling. But she's optimistic that she'll achieve career happiness. So are 94 percent of the college students surveyed.
For half of college students, money was a big factor in choosing what career to pursue. But more than one-fourth say that didn't enter into their thinking at all.
"If you do what you love, you'll be all right in life," Habbaba said.
The AP-Viacom telephone survey of 1,104 adults ages 18 to 24 was conducted Feb. 18 to March 6 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Stanford University's participation in this project was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson, AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.