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Where Americans find the money to pay for college

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

A strong majority of American families don't think students' should have to foot the entire bill for their college education, a new national survey shows. One in 5 families said the student should be solely responsible for paying to attend college.

But the survey, from student lender Sallie Mae and market research firm Ipsos, found both parents and students were unselfish when it comes to the more than $20,000 the average family paid to attend college. Students were more likely to say that students should pay for college, and parents were more likely to say that parents should pay:


Low-income families were most likely to say that college costs were the students' responsibility, and high-income families were the most likely to say they should be paid by parents. The proportion of students who actually ended up paying the entire cost of their education was even higher — 31 percent.

Sallie Mae surveys 18- to 22-year-olds and their parents each year about how they're paying for college, how much they've planned in advance, and where the money comes from. They found that for the average student, paying for college is a shared responsibility, with grants from the federal government, states and colleges themselves covering a large chunk of the sticker price:


Federal financial aid policy assumes that parents will bear the responsibility of paying for college, and students whose parents can afford to pay but refuse to are mostly out of luck when it comes to getting more government help. That means the 9 percent of students from high-income families whose parents said they should pay for college on their own are likely to struggle, or rely on loans, to pay the bill.