The word “college” stresses many high school students, whether or not their resume has enough activities on it, if they have a high enough ACT score, the change of living on their own, or when their applications are due. 

And, because someone — them, their families — has to pay for it. 

“It makes me feel bad and burdensome because I know that my parents are really stressed about money in general, and I know they want to support me,” Marina Beachy, a senior at Mid-Prairie High School in Wellman, said in an IowaWatch high school journalism project about pressure Iowa high school students face.

Pressure when picking a college came up often in that project, conducted in the first three months of 2020 by student journalists at City and West High schools in Iowa City working with their teachers and IowaWatch.

Money is a big reason for the stress.

Credit: IowaWatch logo


High School Pressure is an IowaWatch High School journalism collaboration with the award-winning Iowa City high school newpapers The Little Hawk and West Side Story, at City High School and West High School, respectively. Journalists who produced this project, working with IowaWatch’s Lyle Muller and their journalism teachers, were:

Natalie Dunlap, West High
Marta Leira, West High
Alex Carlon, West High
Kailey Gee, West High
Shoshanna Hemley, City High
Jesse Hausknecht-Brown, City High
Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, City High
Julianne Berry-Stoelzle, City High

Teachers assisting in this project are Sara Whittaker, West High School, and Jonathan Rogers, City High.
This project was supported by a grant from the Community Foundation of Johnson County.

The United States is experiencing a student debt crisis, mounting to $1.51 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2019, up by $10 billion from third quarter, the New York Federal Reserve reported in February.

In Iowa, students graduating from a four-year college or university in Iowa racked up almost $258.2 million in debt by the time they graduated in 2018, the last year for which data from Iowa College Aid are available. Add the state’s community colleges and the debt totals $318.7 million, the data show.

Beachy, 17, plans to attend Luther College in Decorah to study nursing. The private liberal arts college charges $45,000 tuition, plus fees and room and board for on-campus living. She said she plans to get loans and work over the summer. 

She said she spends her sparse spare time applying for scholarships. “I’m already involved in a lot of activities, so scholarships are saved for the weekends,” she said.

Phoebe Chapnick-Sorokin, a recent Iowa City High School alumna, said she was ecstatic when she learned she was accepted by one of the most challenging institutions to get into with a 9.1% acceptance rate: Northwestern University. 

“I was insanely excited and I hadn’t really considered finances yet. Although I had submitted the FAFSA and CSS Profile already, that wasn’t really on my mind,” Chapnick-Sorokin, 19, said. “My parents sat me down and told me that we can’t make a decision or submit the deposit until the financial aid package is released. I was pretty upset about that because at that time I was like, we just focused on the fact that I got in.”

Northwestern tuition costs $56,232 this year, plus fees and room and board for those living on campus. Chapnick-Sorokin has been working since she was 16, applied for scholarships, and has been a part of a work-study program to pay for college as she attends her freshman year at Northwestern.


A fall 2019 report by the independent education news organization The Hechinger Report showed the projected price for Iowans wanting to attend a private college or university in state would be more than $60,000 by 2024-25 at nine private Iowa schools and 10 the following school year in 2025-26. The range was $23,000 to almost $29,000 at Iowa’s three state universities in 2025-26, that report projected.

The Hechinger Report projected these totals after studying tuition and cost-of-living trends for higher education institutions nationwide via Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data. IowaWatch, The Hechinger Report’s exclusive Iowa news partner, analyzed the data for Iowa’s figures and interviewed high school students preparing to pay for college.

Students graduating from a private college in Iowa had an average debt of $26,728 in 2018, while the average for students graduating from one of Iowa’s three state universities was higher, at $28,024, the Iowa College Aid data show.

“My plan from the start was mainly to apply to places that I liked and then choose the cheapest one,” Abby Rood, 18, a City High senior said in the IowaWatch high school journalism project. She ended up applying only to the University of Iowa, she said. “I knew it would be the cheapest, and I didn’t want to go to a small college.”

Rood said she wants to attend a five-year combined bachelor’s and master’s program at the U of I’s Tippie College of Business. “I think the ACT was really important. I took it until I got a 30 to get a certain level of scholarship, the Old Gold scholarship at Iowa,” she said. 


Beyond costs, students compare themselves to where their peers go, interviews showed.

“I felt pressured because everyone around me was applying to so many good schools, and I felt bad because I wasn’t applying to any major institutions,” Iowa City West High senior Erin Elizade, 18, said. “And I definitely felt pressure to apply to more than one because I feel like in the future I probably would regret not applying to more than one institution.”

With high school students increasingly pursuing higher education, the college application process has become a hyper-competitive jungle. A 4.0 GPA and breadth of honors classes no longer equate to admission into top tier universities. Higher education institutions seek students deemed to be well-rounded, yet focused.

Chloe Gretter, Iowa City West High School senior (Marta Leira/West Side Story for IowaWatch) Credit: Marta Leira/West Side Story for IowaWatch

Iowa City West senior Chloe Gretter, 18, found the college application process to be far more taxing than anticipated. “Each school has multiple essays that have to be your best work because this one application could change your entire future,” she said.

Colleges’ higher standards mean that students no longer can indulge in an easy senior year, students interviewed said. Instead, students must take on more responsibility while maintaining the same level of class difficulty.

“I still had to keep up with my classes while doing college essays at the same time, so it was very tense and stressful during the fall months,” Gretter said.

Mary Peterson, a high school counselor at City High, said paying for college is stressful and that high school students pressure themselves to have as little debt as possible. 

“I understand wanting to have as little as possible, but they should still choose to go where they want to go, if that makes sense,” Peterson said. “But I think, yes, it’s stressful, it causes some anxiety, you know all the normal feelings when you don’t know the answer to things.”

Peterson has a message for students: “It’s normal to be stressed out at this point, and that’s OK.”


Many Iowa students who attend a private college in Iowa may get financial assistance from the state’s Iowa Tuition Grant program. The program is providing annual grants of up to $5,650 annually to attend a private college.

But Mariam Keita, a senior at City High in Iowa City, looked out of state. She plans to attend Mount Holyoke college, a private liberal arts women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The college costs $52,040 for tuition and $67,578 when fees and room and board are added but says it meets 100% of demonstrated financial need. 

“What a lot of students don’t know, especially low-income students, is that there are several institutions out there that meet 100% of need,” Keita, 18, said. “So it’s actually cheaper for you to go to a school with a really high tuition that meets your full need than it would be to go to, like, Iowa and only have 70% of your needs met.”

Keita said she has been able to avoid feeling a lot of stress about paying for college, even though she said her family cannot afford to pay her full tuition. She applied for summer programs and writing contests for small scholarship opportunities. “I always knew that I wanted to go to college,” she said. “I had a scrapbook when I was in fifth grade, and I still have pictures of it… I was already thinking about my future and what I wanted to do.”

 But fellow City High senior Phong Nguyen has felt the pressure anyway. “You’re applying for colleges, it’s a stressful time. I heavily rely on need-based scholarships and stuff to pay for college,” Nguyen said. 

Nguyen, 18, said he has to figure out ways to help his parents pay for his tuition because his family cannot afford paying it out of pocket.

“I have to start thinking about work and paying for myself and contributing, so that I don’t so heavily rely on my parents,” he said. “But I feel like that’s a situation that all seniors can relate to. It’s not just me.” 

Shoshanna Hemley is a junior at City High School in Iowa City and a reporter for the high school’s The Little Hawk. Alex Carlon is a junior at Iowa City West High School and online news editor and online managing editor at the school’s West Side Story. Natalie Katz and Marta Leira of West Side Story and IowaWatch’s Lyle Muller contributed to this report.

Source: Pew Research Center Credit: IowaWatch graphic by Lyle Muller

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