The Princeton Review's 2020 College Hopes & Worries Survey Reports on 12,800 Students' & Parents' "Dream" Colleges and Application Perspectives     

  • Stanford is #1 "Dream" College
  • 72% Report High Stress About Applications
  • Biggest Hope: Financial Aid—Biggest Worry: Debt"
  • 99% View College as "Worth It"

NEW YORK, March 17, 2020 —  It’s nail-biting season for the three million high school seniors applying to college — and for their equally anxious parents. Now through April, college decision letters and financial aid award offers are landing in inboxes and mailboxes nationwide. 

According to The Princeton Review® — the education services company that has helped students research and gain admission to colleges since 1981 — stress levels among applicants and their parents this year are high. So are worries about footing the bills should their ideal college say “You’re in!” 

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 Stanford University. Parents of applicants also regard Stanford as their dream college for their children.

That’s according to findings of The Princeton Review’s 2020 College Hopes & Worries Survey released today. The survey, which the company has conducted annually since 2003, asks college applicants and their parents to report on their college application experiences and perspectives.

The 2020 survey findings are based on the opinions of 12,845 people: 80% (10,276) were college applicants, and 20% (2,569) were parents of applicants. The survey format was primarily a questionnaire with multiple-choice answers.

Top 10 "Dream Colleges" for 2020

One survey question, "What 'dream' college do you wish you or your child could attend if acceptance and cost weren't issues?” invited a fill-in-the-blank answer. To that, respondents penned in more than 375 different college names, with some schools being named by hundreds of respondents, others by only one.

The schools that the highest number of surveyed students named as their "dream" college were:

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

The schools that the highest number of surveyed parents named as their "dream" college for their children were:

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

Key findings from respondents (students and parents) to the survey’s multiple-choice questions:

College applications are very stressful.

72% of respondents reported their level of stress about the college application process as “High" or "Very high." In 2003, the survey's initial year, only 56% reported "High" or "Very high" stress levels.

Tests are the toughest factor.

Asked which aspect of the application process was toughest, and given four answer choices, 40% (the plurality) chose the answer, "Taking the SAT®, ACT®, or AP® exams." When asked about their college admission test-taking plans, 43% of respondents said they (or their child) had taken (or planned to take) both the SAT and the ACT. Among those reporting they (their child) had taken (or planned to take) just one test, 34% said it was (would be) the SAT and 14% said the ACT. 9% said they (their child) would not be taking either test.

Financial aid is the biggest hope.    

87% of respondents said financial aid (grants, scholarships, or loans) would be "Extremely" or "Very" necessary for them to pay for college, and 12% said it would be "Somewhat" necessary. In all, 99% reported hoping they'd receive some form of financial aid.

Debt is the biggest worry.     

44% (the plurality) said their biggest worry was "Level of debt to pay for the degree." 29% chose the answer "Will get into first-choice college but won’t be able to afford to attend." Only 20% chose "Won't get into first-choice college," the answer that 34% (the plurality) of respondents in 2006 chose as their biggest worry.

The biggest benefit of a college degree is the prospect for better job(s) and income. 

45% (the plurality) considered the major benefit of a college degree to be a "Potentially better job and income," while 34% chose "Exposure to new ideas," and 21% chose "Education."

Parents and students differ widely on the distance from home of "ideal" college.

Asked what the distance from home would be of their (their child's) "ideal" college, nearly half (48%) of parents chose "Fewer than 250 miles." Among students, considerably more than half (66%) chose "More than 250 miles."

Career services beat academic reputation and affordability as key factor in a college choice.

Asked which factor was likely to sway their decision about the college they would ultimately choose, 44% said it would be the "College with the best program for my (my child’s) career interests." 39% selected the answer, "College that will be the best overall fit." 9% said they would choose the "Most affordable college," and only 8% said they would chose the "College with the best academic reputation."

Overall, college is viewed as "worth it." 

Asked if they viewed college to be worth the investment, 99% of respondents said "Yes."

The 2019 college admission scandal has had little impact on application perspectives. 

A question added to this year's survey asked respondents how much the 2019 "Varsity Blues" college admission scandal had affected their perspective about their college applications. The plurality (38%) selected the answer "Not at all," while 26% chose the answer "A little," 24% said "Somewhat," 9% said "A lot," and 3% said "Extremely."

Other findings report respondents' estimates of college costs, ratings of their college advisors/school counselors, the number of colleges to which they are applying, and their opinions about which part of the college application they think will matter most to admission officers. A complete report showing all survey questions, answer choices, and response percentages is accessible here.

Respondents completed the 2020 survey between August 2019 and early March 2020. They hailed from all 50 states and DC. The majority of respondents completed the survey online via outreaches The Princeton Review conducted. Some respondents submitted a paper version of the survey that was published in The Princeton Review book, The Best 385 Colleges / 2020 Edition (Penguin Random House, August 2019).  

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 the largest online tutoring service in the U.S. It comprises a community of thousands of tutors who have delivered more than 18 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 Follow the company on Twitter @ThePrincetonRev and Instagram @theprincetonreview

SAT® and AP® are trademarks registered and owned by the College Board, which is not affiliated with and does not endorse this survey. ACT® is a registered trademark of ACT, Inc.


  • The Princeton Review



Contacts at The Princeton Review: Jeanne Krier, or Suzanne Podhurst,

    Note To Editors:

    Robert Franek, The Princeton Review’s Editor-in-Chief, is available for interviews on the survey findings and to offer advice for students and parents making college decisions. A full report showing all survey findings and a survey findings infographic is accessible here. The "Dream Colleges" list, alphabetical by college name and alphabetical by state/city/college, is below.

    Alphabetical by College

    Columbia University (NY) / #7 Student Dream College

    Cornell Univ. (NY) / #10 Parent Dream College

    Duke University (NC) / #8 Parent Dream College

    Harvard College (MA) / #2 Student Dream College, #4 Parent Dream College

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology / #3 Parent Dream College, #4 Student Dream College

    New York University / #5 Student Dream College, #5 Parent Dream College

    Princeton University (NJ) / #2 Parent Dream College, #6 Student Dream College

    Stanford University CA) / #1 Student Dream College, #1 Parent Dream College

    University of California—Berkeley / #10 Student Dream College

    University of California—Los Angeles / #3 Student Dream College, #9 Parent Dream College

    University of Michigan—Ann Arbor / #7 Parent Dream College, #9 Student College

    University of Pennsylvania / #6 Parent Dream College

    Yale University (CT) / #8 Student Dream College

    Alphabetical by State/City/College


    • Berkeley / University of California—Berkeley / #10 Student Dream College 
    • Los Angeles / University of California—Los Angeles / #3 Student Dream College, #9 Parent Dream College
    • Palo Alto / Stanford University / #1 Student Dream College, #1 Parent Dream College


    • New Haven / Yale University / #8 Student Dream College


    • Cambridge / Harvard College / #2 Student Dream College, #4 Parent Dream College
    • Cambridge / Massachusetts Institute of Technology / #3 Parent Dream College, #4 Student Dream College


    • Ann Arbor / University of Michigan—Ann Arbor / #7 Parent Dream College, #9 Student College    

    New Jersey

    • Princeton / Princeton University / #2 Parent Dream College, #6 Student Dream College    

    New York

    • Ithaca / Cornell University / #10 Parent Dream College
    • New York / Columbia University / #7 Student Dream College    
    • New York / New York University / #5 Student Dream College, #5 Parent Dream College    

    North Carolina

    • Durham / Duke University / #8 Parent Dream College


      • Philadelphia / University of Pennsylvania / #6 Parent Dream College