Deciding to Go to College

2015 College Decisions Survey: Part I
Policy Paper
May 28, 2015

Today, New America’s Education Policy Program released the first in a series of College Decisions Survey briefs that analyze new survey data about what prospective college students know about the college-going and financing process. Part 1: Deciding to Go to College focuses on why students decide to pursue college in the first place, and the factors students consider when deciding to apply to a specific college. It looks at how financial concerns are one of the major drivers in deciding whether and where to go to college.

As college has become all but required for a well-paying career in today’s economy, the students and families shelling out money for a college education want to be assured they’ll see a good return on investment. According to an online survey of 1,011 U.S. residents ages 16-40, who were largely prospective college students (with the remainder in their first semester of college), the top reasons to decide to go to college among the reasons listed in the survey are: 1) To improve employment opportunities (91 percent); 2) To make more money (90 percent); and 3) To get a good job (89 percent). In fact, 7 out of 10 students describe each of these items as very important. The survey was commissioned by New America and conducted by Harris Poll October-November of 2014.

While financial considerations matter in deciding whether to go to college, they also play a critical role when considering what specific college to attend. When asked how important a list of factors are when considering a specific college--such as the availability of financial aid, the college’s location, the percentage of students graduating, athletics and sports teams--respondents are most concerned about the majors and programs that are offered (93 percent ranked this as important or very important). Following closely behind this main factor, students are most concerned about the availability of financial aid and how much a specific college costs (88 percent rated this as an important or very important factor). In fact, when pressed to list the single most important factor, two out of three students (63 percent) were most concerned with how much a specific college costs.

“Ideally, we like to think of college as an abstract opportunity for learning, development, and growth,” explained Senior Policy Analyst, Rachel Fishman, the report’s author. “College can and should be those things, but cost is an unavoidable context. As our survey shows, financial considerations are oftentimes the driving factor behind the decision whether and where to go to college.”

Institutions and policymakers must be aware of students’ price concerns as they think about how best to promote access and success, including crafting policies that drive down the cost of college and better target financial aid to the low- and moderate-income students who need it most. In addition, policymakers should focus on using data to help students better understand the return on a college degree.

More About the College Decisions Survey

New America commissioned Harris Poll to create and administer the College Decisions Survey. A national online survey was conducted between October 7th and November 3rd, 2014. The sample included 1,011 completed interviews and consisted of U.S. residents ages 16 to 40 who do not have college degrees and plan on enrolling in a two-year or four-year college within the next 12 months (n=747). The survey also included individuals who were in the first semester of their first year at a two-year or four-year college (n=264).

The five College Decisions Survey briefs will be released during the spring and summer of 2015 and will 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
  • The college search process and helpfulness of various common resources