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Picking college, major comes down to money

9:13 AM, Aug 15, 2013   |    comments
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by Hadley Malcolm, USA TODAY 

The financial burden of paying for college has families cost-cutting before their kids even apply to schools. And it's affecting students' decisions about not only where to go, but what to study, according to survey data given exclusively to USA TODAY.

The survey by Discover Student Loans, to be released Thursday, found that nearly half of adults are limiting their child's college choices based on price. And with rising student loan debt and a job market that continues to greet college grads with not-so-open arms, the ability to find employment has become a top factor in deciding what to study. The number of adults who say earning potential is more important to their child's education than what they major in is up, at 42% vs. 38% last year, the survey shows.

Discover Student Loans surveyed 1,000 adults with college-bound children ages 16 to 18.

The economic downturn, along with steadily rising tuition and student loan debt, has pushed the conversation about affordability to the beginning of the college application process, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the Edvisors Network of websites about planning and paying for college.

"College in the past has been kind of unique in that you decide which college you go to before you know how much it will cost you or whether you can afford it. For the longest time, families were kind of ignoring the college cost."

Now cost is often the deciding factor. Several recent surveys show how much finances are weighing on practically every aspect of applying to colleges. The amount of money parents can contribute to their child's education has dropped. Parents' income and savings cover less than a third of the cost of college, compared with 37% in 2010, according to Sallie Mae's annual study How America Pays for College, out last month.

And last year marked the first time a survey by Fastweb.com found that the main reason students didn't enroll at their top-choice school wasn't because they didn't get in, but because they couldn't afford to go, says Kantrowitz, who used to be the publisher of the site.

Job prospects have also become part of the conversation much earlier as families worry about how their kids will be able to pay off debt. Katy Murphy, director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school in San Jose, Calif., says more parents she talks to are interested in colleges with co-op programs. Co-ops build work experience into the curriculum - students take a semester to work for a company, get paid for it, then return to the classroom. They often boost the possibility of job offers after graduation, she says.

Some interviewed by USA TODAY also mentioned the importance of considering that where you plan to look for a job will affect how much you're paid. Samantha Reeves, 29, says she would have reconsidered ever going to law school if she had realized how much she'd start out making in her hometown of Columbia, Mo., compared with a larger city.

Reeves, who now works as a writer for Veterans United Home Loans, has more than $60,000 in student loan debt from law school.

"It's really expensive," she says, "and if I wasn't going to be able to pay my student loans it doesn't really seem like the best financial option."

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