Princeton Review’s 2021 “College Hopes & Worries” Survey Report

2021 College Hopes & WorriesBy Jeanne Krier, Publicist for The Princeton Review

March through April is nail-biting season for nearly three million high school seniors and their parents awaiting news about their more than 10 million outstanding applications to colleges. Offers of admission and financial aid have already landed in some students’ e-mail inboxes. The majority of applicants, however, are anxiously watching their inboxes eager to see the “A-word”—Accepted. That’s a lot of college hopes & worries still up in the air!

According to The Princeton Review®‘s  2021 College Hopes & Worries Survey, stress levels are higher than ever this year among applicants and parents alike. So are worries about paying for college should their dream college reply “Accepted!” but not offer much by way of the other “A-word”—Aid.

The survey, which the education services company has conducted annually since 2003, polled 14,093 people (11,113 college applicants and 2,960 parents of applicants) online in February about their application experiences, perspectives, and concerns.

Survey findings reveal that in a fantasy scenario—if the cost of college were inconsequential and admission automatic—the “Dream” college this year’s applicants wish they could attend is Harvard. Parents of applicants this year wish their children could head to Stanford. (Last year, Stanford was the top “Dream” college among students as well as among parents surveyed by The Princeton Review.)

The 20-question survey, which presents multiple-choice answers, annually asks respondents to weigh in on several application issues and topics, from the number of colleges to which they are applying to what factor will be most important to them in May when it comes to deciding which college to attend.

This year’s survey also asked participants if—and how—the coronavirus pandemic was affecting their application experiences. A complete report showing all survey questions, answer choices, and findings is accessible here. Notes on key findings follow.

Top 10 Dream Colleges for 2021

One annual College Hopes & Worries survey question, “What Dream college do you wish you or your child could attend if acceptance and cost weren’t issues?” invites a fill-in-the-blank answer. Respondents enter in the names of more than 375 different colleges and universities. Some schools are named by hundreds of participants as their Dream college—others by only one.

The schools named “Dream” colleges by the highest number of surveyed students were:

  1. Harvard College (MA)
  2. Stanford University (CA)
  3. New York University
  4. Columbia University (NY)
  5. University of California—Los Angeles
  6. Princeton University (NJ)
  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  8. University of Texas—Austin
  9. University of Pennsylvania
  10. Yale University (CT)

The schools named “Dream” colleges by the highest number of surveyed parents were:

  1. Stanford University (CA)
  2. Harvard College (MA)
  3. Princeton University (NJ)
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Yale University (CT)
  6. University of Pennsylvania
  7. University of California—Los Angeles
  8. New York University
  9. Columbia University (NY)
  10. Duke University (NC)

Findings based on responses of students and parents to questions with multiple-choice answers indicate:

  • College applications are highly stressful.
    74% of respondents (2% more than last year) reported “High” or “Very High” stress about their applications.   In 2003, the survey’s initial year, only 56% reported “High” or “Very High” stress.
  • Financial aid is the biggest worry.
    98% of respondents reported needing some financial assistance (grants, scholarships, or loans) to pay for college. 82% said aid would be “Extremely” or “Very” necessary and 16% deemed it “Somewhat” necessary.
  • Debt is the biggest worry.
    41% (the plurality) said their greatest worry was the “Level of debt to pay for the degree.” For 28%, the top concern was “Will get into first-choice college, but won’t be able to afford to attend,” while 24% selected the answer, “Won’t get into first-choice college.”  The latter was the major worry among survey respondents fifteen years ago, when a plurality of 34% of respondents selected that answer in 2006.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has affected perspectives about college applications as well as decisions about colleges.
    48% (the plurality) said the pandemic-related issue that has been most concerning with respect to their applications was “Attending school remotely: the potential impact on grades and extracurriculars.”
  • 59% of respondents reported that the pandemic had affected their decisions about the colleges to which they were applying. Of that group, 54% said they were applying to “Colleges with lower sticker prices.” 32% said “Colleges closer to home,” 7% said “Schools with smaller student bodies (or in less densely populated areas),” and 7% said “Colleges with on-campus medical centers or located near hospitals.”
  • Tests are the toughest part of applications.  More students have taken or plan to take the SAT®than the ACT®
    Asked which aspect of the application process was toughest, 38% (the plurality) chose the answer, “Taking the SAT®, ACT®, or AP®exams.” Asked which admission test(s) they (their child) had taken or planned to take, 39% said only the SAT, and 14% said only the ACT while 33% said “Both tests,” and 14% said “Neither test.”
  • The biggest benefit of a college degree is the prospect of a better job.
    43% (the plurality) considered the major benefit of earning a college degree to be a “Potentially better job and income,” while 32% chose “Exposure to new ideas,” and 25% chose “Education.”
  • “Overall fit” and programs supporting career interests matter more than academic reputation and affordability in decisions about colleges. 
    Asked to characterize the college they were most likely to choose, 41% selected the answer, “College that will be the best overall fit.” Nearly as many, 39%, selected “College with the best program for my (my child’s) career interests.” Only 11% said they would choose the “College with the best academic reputation,” and 9% said they would choose the “Most affordable college.”
  • College is considered “worth it.” 
    Asked if they believe college will be “worth it,” 99% of respondents said “Yes.”
  • Parents and students differ on the distance from home of “ideal” college.
    Asked how far from home their (their child’s) “ideal” college would be, 49% of parent respondents chose the answer, “Fewer than 250 miles.” However, 68% of student respondents selected answers in ranges exceeding 250 miles: 16% of them said “More than 1,000 miles.” On this subject, parents’ and students’ opinions have not changed since 2007 when The Princeton Review added the question to the survey.

Respondents to the 2021 College Hopes & Worries survey hailed from all 50 states and DC as well as from more than 42 countries abroad. All were students or parents using The Princeton Review’s website or other education resources. The Princeton Review has been helping students research and gain admission to their dream colleges since 1981.

The 2021 College Hopes & Worries survey included an optional question inviting respondents to share their advice for next year’s college applicants and parents. Said one wise student from New Jersey, “Underneath all of the stress, the college application process is very exciting, so KEEP GOING and KEEP SMILING.”  The Princeton Review has posted a sampler of respondents’ student and parent advice here.

About The Princeton Review

The Princeton Review® is a leading tutoring, test prep, and college admission services company. Every year, it helps millions of college- and graduate school–bound students achieve their education and career goals through online and in-person courses delivered by a network of more than 4,000 teachers and tutors, online resources, and its more than 150 print and digital books published by Penguin Random House. The company’s  brand is one of the largest online tutoring services in the U.S. It comprises a community of thousands of tutors who have delivered more than 20 million one-to-one tutoring sessions. The Princeton Review is headquartered in New York, NY. The Princeton Review is not affiliated with Princeton University. For more information, visit and the company’s Media Center. Follow the company on Twitter (@ThePrincetonRev) and Instagram (@ThePrincetonReview).

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