A new national survey shows college is too expensive for most Americans, forcing 38 percent of undergraduates to plunge deep into debt. Most borrowers then struggle for years to repay their loans, delaying major life decisions such as starting a family, buying a home—or returning to school.

Complicating matters is this: college price tags and financial aid offers can be so confusing that many prospective students over- or underestimate their costs, our new Lumina Foundation-Gallup poll found. A student’s net cost is typically much less than the advertised sticker price due to grants, aid, and scholarships.

True transparency—just the facts—on the real costs of college could open the door for many more to earn degrees and improve their earning power. Ohio’s legislature set an example by recently passing a law requiring colleges and universities to disclose all costs, including class fees, room and board, and special charges. Prospective students also will be shown what graduates earn in their chosen majors.

Lumina Vice President of Impact and Planning Courtney Brown

That’s good news for half of the adults who say they are “much” or “somewhat” more likely to seek a bachelor’s degree if they know the exact costs, with no hidden fees. This is especially true of men, Asian Americans, and younger students ages 18 to 25.

Here are a few more details from our survey:

  • Debt pauses life: Nearly three-fourths of student loan borrowers say they’ve delayed at least one significant life event due to debt. Even small loans, less than $10,000, cripple families. A new White House debt forgiveness plan could help 30 million borrowers; total U.S. student debt tops $1.7 trillion.
  • Estimating costs: Only 23 percent of adults without degrees could guess the cost of a bachelor’s degree within $5,000 of its price tag. The actual annual cost of a four-year degree at in-state public colleges is about $15,000. Housing, food, and books can add thousands of dollars a year.
  • Skipping college: More than half of adults say cost is a “very important” reason for not enrolling or returning to college. “Going into debt—I didn’t want to do it,” a 51-year-old man who skipped college told our poll. “And I didn’t want to ask my parents to do it for me.”
  • Stopping out: Nearly one-third of enrolled students say they considered leaving school in the past six months due to high costs. About 40 million Americans have some college but no degree.

Even with these pressing concerns, most Americans—75 percent—believe a bachelor’s degree is extremely or very valuable for better jobs and a more educated, informed nation. Unfortunately, two-thirds don’t think it is accessible to most people. To help more Americans learn, earn, and build better lives and stronger communities, higher education leaders and policymakers must work harder to reduce costs, enhance aid, and be crystal clear about the price. We can no longer keep valuable learning opportunities and good lives out of reach for the majority of Americans.

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