Many Students Feel Lost Searching for College Cost, Financial Aid Information, Report Says

Quick Takeaways:

  • More than half of new or prospective college students (63 percent) said they have “felt lost” when researching college or financial aid, but 75 percent said they were able to find all the information they need.
  • College websites (63 percent) and online search engines (59 percent) were the most popular sources of information for students. Fewer than one-quarter of students said they had ever used college ranking lists (23 percent) or the Department of Education website (16 percent). 
  • Younger students were more likely than older students to use a variety of resources; white students were significantly more likely to search college websites than African-American and Hispanic students, and to consult their parents; and students from higher-income families ($50,000-$100,000) were twice as likely as those from lower-income families (less than $50,000) to consult their parents for information.

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Nearly two-thirds of new and prospective college students said they have felt lost navigating the abundance of information to select a college that’s the right fit, according to a brief released today from New America. But despite the confusion, three-quarters of the students surveyed said they found all the information necessary to make their college decisions.

The brief – written by Rachel Fishman and Ivy Love – is the fifth and final in a series of surveys asking students about different aspects of the college decision-making process. Previous surveys polled students on their expectations about borrowing for college, and their familiarity with different types of financial aid.

Overall, 63 percent of students said they felt lost while searching for a college, but 75 percent said they found all the information they needed. Most students have used a college website (63 percent) and online search engines (59 percent) to locate information about college cost and financial aid.

Fishman and Love wrote in the brief that there appeared to be a disconnect in students’ responses because of the complexity of the higher education system and the plethora of information available.

“You can throw loads of information at students to try to help them make better-informed decisions about which college will be the right fit financially, academically, and socially,” they wrote. “But at the end of the day, if the system is too complex, no amount of information will clarify their decision-making process.”

That’s why New America and other organizations and policymakers have advocated for improving data on the cost of college, financial aid, and student outcomes, simplifying the federal financial aid system, and holding colleges and universities more accountable for how their students fare after leaving school.

The survey showed that younger students between the ages of 16 and 19 were more likely to use a wider variety of resources when searching for information than older students, above the age of 20. Older students, though, were less likely to say they had consulted friends, parents, and teachers, and more likely to use search engines. “I wouldn’t say my friends are the college-y type,” one student said in response to a survey question.

White students were also significantly more likely to use college websites as a source of information than African-American and Hispanic students, and more likely to consult their parents. There was also a gap when it came to family wealth – students from higher-income families ($50,000-$100,000) were more likely to use personal connections for information. They were twice as likely, for example, to ask their parents for information, the brief said.

While college websites and search engines were both the most popular and most frequently-used sources among students for information about college, they were less likely to use resources from the Department of Education (ED). Just 16 percent of students said they had ever used ED’s website for information, and 5 percent said it was the resource they used most frequently. But 80 percent of those who did use ED’s website for information said it was helpful or very helpful in their search – more so than a high school guidance counselor (78 percent), a college brochure (76 percent), or a parent (66 percent).

In addition to urging the federal government to improve its data on college cost and financial aid, as well as ratcheting up accountability for colleges, Fishman and Love recommended that institutions also improve the amount of information they provide and its accessibility. They suggest targeting specific groups to make sure students of different races and income levels have the information they need to make an informed decision.

“Since students are likely to use institutional resources to get more information during their college search, institutions must do a better job at giving students clear information, including price of attendance,” they wrote. “The federal government also has an important role to play to ensure that the data institutions and third-party sources provide to students are accurate, and that there is robust accountability that will help prevent students from attending institutions likely to leave them worse off than before they arrived.”


Publication Date: 9/17/2015

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