Feb 2, 2013

Financial Considerations Outweigh Graduation Rates in College Choice for This Year's Freshmen

Swarthmore graduates 91% in 4 years--the highest rate in the country

UCLA’s CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey is the largest and longest-running survey of American college students. Since 1966, about 1.5 million first-time, first-year students have responded to an evolving list of questions designed to get at who they are and what they care about.

This year’s study reflects the attitudes and trends expressed by 192,912 freshmen entering 283 four-year colleges of “varying levels of selectivity and type in the United States."

And once again, the good news is that most high school seniors are continuing to get in to their first choice colleges. More than 76 percent of the students surveyed indicated they were admitted to the schools at the top of their lists.

Once admitted, however, only a little over 59 percent of those surveyed eventually matriculated at those schools—a gap of more than 17 percentage points.  

Perhaps this is because almost 67 percent believed that current economic conditions significantly affected their choice of college—up from 62 percent just two years earlier when the question was first asked.  In fact, increasing numbers of first-year students (13.4) are reporting that they simply could not afford their first choice school in 2012.

As a result, students are looking for job-related benefits in their choice of college.  The percent of incoming freshmen that cited “to be able to get a better job” as a very important reason for attending college reached an all-time high of 87.9 percent in 2012—considerably up from the reported low of 67.8 percent in 1976.

And more students also said the ability to “make more money” was a very important reason to attend college.  This percentage increased from 71.7 in 2011 to 74.6 in 2012—another all-time high.

"Students have figured out that increased lifetime earnings result from a college education," said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. "It is important to continue to encourage a long-term view of the benefits of college in this recovering economy."

Although academic reputation still weighs heavily in college choice, it’s clear that financial realities may be having a very real effect on the final decision to attend.  And these considerations appear more important than the likelihood that they’ll ever graduate.

For the first time this year, the CIRP survey probed student awareness of time it takes to graduate.  Responses indicated that 83.4 percent expect to graduate from the college they had just entered in four years.  Yet when considering actual four-year graduation rates from colleges included in the survey, it would be expected that only 40.6 percent would complete in that time. And interestingly, less than a third even considered graduation rates an important factor in their choice of college.

The following are the 23 reasons for choosing a college that students were offered in the UCLA survey. The only real change from last year is that the cost of attending a college now outweighs a campus visit in terms which factors students said were “very important” in influencing their final choice.

  1. College has a very good academic reputation (63.8 percent)↑
  2. This college’s graduates get good jobs (55.9 percent)↑
  3. I was offered financial assistance (45.6 percent)↑
  4. The cost of attending this college (43.3 percent)↑
  5. A visit to the campus (41.8 percent)↓
  6. College has a good reputation for social activities (40.2 percent)↑
  7. Wanted to go to a college about this size (38.8 percent)↑
  8. Grads get into good grad/professional schools (32.8 percent)↓
  9. Percent of students that graduate from this college (30.4 percent)*
  10. Wanted to live near home (20.1 percent)↑
  11. Information from a website (18.7 percent)↑
  12. Rankings in national magazines (18.2 percent)
  13. Parents wanted me to go to this school (15.1 percent)↑
  14. Admitted early decision and/or early action (13.7 percent)↓
  15. Could not afford first choice (13.4 percent)↑
  16. High school counselor advised me (10.3 percent)↑
  17. Not offered aid by first choice (9.5 percent)↑
  18. Athletic department recruited me (8.9 percent)↑
  19. Attracted by religious affiliation/orientation of college (7.4 percent)↑
  20. My teacher advised me (6.8 percent)↑
  21. My relatives wanted me to come here (6.8 percent)↑
  22. Private college counselor advised me (3.8 percent)↑
  23. Ability to take online courses (3.2 percent)↑
For more information or to order a complete copy of the report, visit the HERI website.

*First time question

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