Report: Single Most Important Factor in Selecting a College is Cost

Quick Takeaways:  

  • Seven out of ten survey participants listed indicated the top three reasons they go to college are to: improve employment opportunities, make more money, and get a good job.
  • When pressed to list the single most important factor, when deciding whether and where to attend college, students were most concerned with how much a specific college costs (63 percent). 
  • 74 percent of families making less than $50,000 think the amount borrowed by students at a specific institution is an “important” or “very important” factor in choosing a college.

By Charlotte Etier, Research Analyst 

A newly released report from The New America Foundation, “College Decisions Survey: Deciding to Go to College,” is the first in a multi-part series examining why students decide to go to college. This report, which focuses on what factors students consider when deciding to apply to a specific college found students go to college to improve employment opportunities, make more money, and get a good job. The report also examines financial concerns, which are one of the major drivers in deciding whether and where students go to college, according to the report. 

This series aims to examine a gap in the literature related to the decision-making trends of non-traditional students (defined as working full- or part-time, having families, and/or attending a two-year institution first) whose enrollment rates in postsecondary education are on the rise. As the report indicates, a lack of knowledge or understanding of this population could lead policymakers to craft policies that are only targeted to the stereotypical student. The respondents in this survey showed a value difference by age group when responding to “reasons to go to college;” younger students (ages 16 - 19) are more likely than older students to say that one of their reasons for going to college is to learn more about a favorite topic of interest (90 percent) or to meet new people (63 percent), whereas older students (ages 30 - 40) are more likely to say that setting an example or building a better life for their children (69 and 73 percent, respectively) are important factors in considering going to college. 

This report also examined the impact financial concerns have on students’ decisions about whether and where to attend college. Ninety-three percent of respondents ranked consideration of majors and programs that are offered as a primary concern when deciding on a specific college. Financial aid came in second of the list with 88 percent of respondents saying it was a concern in the college selection process, followed by employment rates of graduates (78 percent), and student loan default rates (68 percent). However, when pressed to list the single most important factor, 63 percent of respondents reported they most concerned with how much a specific college costs. 

As mentioned, previous studies, such as “Differential Impacts of College Ratings: The Case of Education Deserts” by education researcher Dr. Nicholas Hillman, have found evidence pointing to geography as a major, defining factor related to school choice. However, in contrast, the results of this report found-- for all but the wealthiest students-- cost, programs of study, and availability of financial aid ranked more important than location. A breakdown of income showed families making less than $50,000 (74 percent) think the amount borrowed by students at a specific institution is “important” or “very important,” and 73 percent of those from families making between $50,000 and just less than $75,000 think the amount borrowed is “important” or “very important.” These findings align with Discover’s fourth annual student loan survey, released yesterday, which also indicated the price of college is increasingly affecting the decision-making process when choosing schools.

To gather data for this report New American commissioned Harris Poll to create and distribute a survey during the fall of 2014 to U. S. residents aged 16 to 40 who did not have college degrees but planned on enrolling within the next 12 months. The results of this survey, which included over 1,000 interviews, will be released throughout the summer of 2015 and cover topics including:

  • Financial concerns during the postsecondary decision-making process;
  • The application process for different types of students;
  • Students’ familiarity with financial aid;
  • Students’ ability to estimate their loan debt and monthly payments; and
  • The college search process and helpfulness of various common resources.

NASFAA will continue to share these results with members as they become available.


Publication Date: 6/10/2015

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