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Money tops college students' fears; Many juggle jobs, loans to cover costs, but remain confident schooling will pay off

In these tight times, college students are getting a lesson in economics no matter what their major. Students say money influences everything from what school they attend and what career they pursue to how quickly they complete their degrees -- or whether they graduate at all.

Money problems -- not bad grades -- is the reason cited by most college students who have considered dropping out, an Associated Press-Viacom poll finds.

Almost six in 10 students rely on loans to help with college costs, and nearly half who do say they are uncomfortable with the debt. A majority of students at four-year colleges say they routinely feel at least a little worried about having enough money to make it through the week, according to the poll, conducted in partnership with Stanford University.

Scrimping, of course, has long been part of the college experience, but tough times in the real world mean even tighter money on campus.

Recession-battered parents have less money to spend on their children's tuition. Jobs that used to be waiting upon graduation aren't there anymore -- consumed by the nation's 8.8 percent unemployment rate. And college prices keep going up, as states struggle with budget deficits. Average tuition, room and board rose to about $16,000 at in-state public schools this year and $37,000 at private schools.

Most college students -- 84 percent -- need more than one source of cash to keep up, the poll of people ages 18 to 24 found.

About two-thirds say they work part time or more to help pay for college. That's supplemented by another popular source of funds: mom and dad. Six in 10 get help from parents. The same number rely on scholarships for part of the bill.

"For a while, I couldn't find a job, and it was like, 'How am I going to eat? And how am I going to get to school if I don't have gas?' " said Allyson Bure, 20, a nursing student who works two part-time jobs, as a clerk at a Fashion Bug store and as a hotel housekeeper.

Like 57 percent of college students surveyed, Bure depends on student loans. Including debt she racked up at another school, she expects to owe about $52,000 by the time she finishes her associate's degree at Trocaire College in South Buffalo. Then she hopes to transfer to a university.

Many students are uneasy about borrowing, with good reason. The U.S. Education Department says 7 percent of borrowers default within two years of beginning repayment on loans that can stretch for a decade or more. Average student loan debt tops $23,000.

Bure says she is confident of earning enough to pay off her loans. She's studying to become a nurse anesthetist, a job that can pay more than $100,000 a year. "I'll be secure," she predicted.

Despite the rising costs, 85 percent of students and recent grads say college is worth the time and money. In overwhelming numbers, they express satisfaction with the education they have received. And they have wide expectations for that education: Most say it's very or extremely important that colleges broaden students' knowledge and expand their minds, help them gain life skills, expose them to new experiences and train them for a career.

Nine out of 10 expect to find a job in their field. For most, that's the bottom line. Fifty-five percent say an education that focuses on success in the working world is more valuable than one focused on general knowledge and critical thinking.

With that pragmatic attitude, many treat education like a commodity to be shaped to fit their needs and budgets.

Most college students say cost was a big factor in determining where they applied and which school they ended up attending. A hefty majority -- 86 percent -- say switching programs is worthwhile if you're not getting exactly what you want from a school. A third said they added another major to increase options after graduation.

Three-fourths say taking time to get exactly what they want from their education is more important than finishing within the traditional four years, and a quarter who have finished took extra time.

On the other hand, many students are racing to the finish to save money.

About 4 in 10 college students hope to graduate in less than four years. To get a jump-start, 58 percent of students took college-credit courses in high school. And about half earned credits at a community college before moving on to a more expensive bachelor's degree program.

That's what Falma Habbaba, who works a part-time job as a restaurant hostess, is doing. Once she's finished two years at Cuyamaca College, she plans to transfer to nearby San Diego State University. Half of the college students surveyed, including Habbaba, hope to continue their educations beyond a four-year degree. In her case, law school beckons.

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