Going Away to College This Fall? You’re Now the Exception

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For American students, heading off to college has traditionally also meant physically going away to college. But now, at a time when college costs are soaring, and when news of young people being saddled with burdensome student loan debt is unavoidable, today’s students are trying to trim college expenses in every way possible. More than half of students, in fact, will be living at home when the fall semester begins—up significantly from the 43% of students who commuted a couple of years ago.

The just-released report from Sallie Mae shows that in a “major shift in spending,” college students themselves are paying a larger percentage of the total amount for their educations lately. Using their savings and income, undergrads spent $2,555 on average for their educations during the last academic year, up from $1,944 the previous year. Parents, by contrast, have been contributing less for their children’s college bills: $5,955 last year, down substantially from $8,752 two years prior. In total, parents footed 37% of college costs via spending or borrowing, compared to 44% of their children’s college expenses four years before. Students themselves account for 30% of the total cost of attendance, up from 24% four years earlier.

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And now that students themselves are paying a larger chunk of their own bills, they’re deciding that maybe it’s not such a good idea to choose the “best”—or at least most expensive—route to getting a college degree.

Enrollment in community colleges has been rising at least since the onset of the Great Recession, and the trend continues today. The Sallie Mae study noted that 29% of students headed to lower-cost community colleges, up from 23% two years prior. Obviously, community college students are more likely to live at home with their parents, but that’s not the only reason the percentage of students living in dorms and college town apartments and homes is shrinking.

High cost is having a clear impact on where students are deciding to enroll. According to the Sallie Mae report, a whopping 69% of families eliminated certain colleges from the decision process simply because costs were too high. That’s the highest rate in the five years this study has been conducted. What may seem most remarkable of all is that last year families actually paid 5% less for college than the year before—at a time when we all know that the costs of tuition, books, fees, and room and board have been skyrocketing.

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The argument that a so-called “higher education bubble” really does exist—and may be in the process of popping—gets a boost especially because it looks like students in wealthier American families, who should be able to pay for pricey colleges, are choosing to stay home in increasingly higher numbers. As USA Today points out:

This year, 47% of students from high-income families, those making more than $100,000, are living at home, nearly double the 24% who did two years ago.

Surely, such students are living at home not just because these kids would simply miss mom and dad too much, but (at least partially) to trim college costs and avoid taking on excessive debt. Even families earning over $100K have a hard time affording colleges that cost over $50K per year.

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The idea that a college degree is essential remains quite strong, with 83% of students and parents strongly agreeing that higher education is a smart investment in the future. Fewer and fewer believe, however, that it’s essential to pay top dollar for one’s education or that the traditional college dorm life experience is worth the money, let alone necessary.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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