May 20, 2016

This year’s freshmen rank 20 reasons for choosing a college

The CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies is the largest and longest-running survey of American college students.

And this year marks 50 years of surveys. Since 1966, more than 15 million first-time, first-year students at 1,900 colleges and universities have responded to an evolving list of questions designed to get at who they are and what they care about.

For the record, this year’s study reflects the attitudes and trends expressed by 141,189 freshmen entering 199 four-year colleges and universities of “varying levels of selectivity and type” in the United States.

And not surprisingly, financial considerations continue to exert pressure on incoming freshmen, with college costs and financial aid playing increasingly decisive roles in school-selection.

To get better information around these issues, the 2015 CIRP Freshman Survey included a new bank of questions about specific types of financial aid students rely upon to fund college expenses, including work-study, military benefits, and Pell grants. Specifically, Pell grants provide very low-income college students with funds that do not have to be repaid.

Although relatively similar proportions of Pell recipients (73.9%) and non-recipients (75.7%) were admitted to their first-choice institutions, only about half of the students with Pell grants (51.2%) enrolled in their first-choice colleges compared to 61.4% of students without Pell grants. As suggested by responses to other questions, both short-term and long-term financial considerations affected enrollment decisions of Pell recipients and many were worried about the affordability of their first-choice colleges.

In 1974, nearly 80% of students indicated they had enrolled at their first choice college. Since then, this percentage declined to an all-time low in 2014 of 55%. This year, the overall number rebounded somewhat to 58.9%, possibly reflecting an improved economy.

In recent years, the survey has found the percentage of students reporting economic and practical factors as “very important” in their choice of where to go to college has increased. According to the report, students now give more weight to post-college opportunities, as ability to get good jobs and/or admission to top graduate or professional schools has increased substantially since these questions were first asked in 1983.

And while nearly two-thirds of all first-year students have at least “some” or “major” concerns about their ability to finance college (64.6%), women tended to express much greater concern then men. In fact, women are 10 percentage points more likely than men to report any concern about their ability to pay for college (69.5% vs. 58.7%). And women who have some or major concerns about their ability to finance college are more likely than men to view financial considerations (being offered financial assistance, cost of attending this college) as “very important” factors in choosing their college.

Although academic reputation still weighs heavily in college choice, it’s clear that financial realities may be playing an increasingly important role in the final decision to attend.

These considerations appear more important than the likelihood that they’ll ever graduate, as less than a third of the survey respondents even considered graduation rates an important factor in their choice of college.

In fact, the CIRP survey probed student awareness of time it takes to graduate.  Responses indicated that over 85 percent expect to graduate from the college they had just entered in four years.  This represents a major disconnect between expectations and reality, as the national four-year graduation rate is just under 40 percent.

The following are the 20 reasons for choosing a college students were offered in the 2015 CIRP Freshman Survey. The percentages provided indicate what portion of students surveyed considered these factors "very important."
  1. College has a very good academic reputation (69.7 percent)↑ from last year
  2. This college’s graduates get good jobs (60.1 percent)↑
  3. I was offered financial assistance (47.1 percent)↑
  4. The cost of attending this college (45.2 percent)↑
  5. College has a good reputation for social activities (44.8 percent)↑
  6. A visit to the campus (42.8 percent)↑
  7. Grads get into good grad/professional schools (37.6 percent)↑
  8. Wanted to go to a college about this size (37.5 percent)↑
  9. Percent of students that graduate from this college (30.9 percent)↓
  10. Rankings in national magazines (20.1 percent)↑
  11. Wanted to live near home (18.3 percent)↓
  12. Parents/relatives wanted me to go to this school (17.6 percent)
  13. Admitted early decision and/or early action (16.3 percent)↑
  14. Could not afford first choice (13 percent)↓
  15. Athletic department recruited me (10.4 percent)↑
  16. High school counselor advised me (10.1 percent)↓
  17. Not offered aid by first choice (10 percent)↓
  18. Attracted by religious affiliation/orientation of college (8.1 percent)↑
  19. My teacher advised me (7.4 percent)↑
  20. Private college counselor advised me (4.6 percent)
Interestingly, the percentage of students describing the role of private college counselors as “very important” was higher among students attending private colleges (7.1%) and universities (6%) as opposed to those attending public colleges (3.8%) and universities (3.1%).

For more information or to download a complete copy of the report, visit the HERI website.

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