Searching For the Right College

2015 College Decisions Survey: Part V
Policy Paper
Sept. 17, 2015

Today, New America’s Education Policy Program released the fifth and final brief in a series analyzing new survey data about what prospective college students know about the college-going and financing process. Part V: Searching for the Right College focuses on prospective and recently-enrolled college students’ experiences finding and using information to make their college decisions.

“Students have to locate and weigh an enormous amount of information to select an institution and program that fits their needs,” explained Rachel Fishman, Senior Policy Analyst and one of the report’s authors. “It is not surprising that 63 percent of recently-enrolled and prospective students say they have often felt lost when researching college or financial aid options.”

College websites (63 percent) and online search engines (59 percent) were the most popular sources of information that prospective and recently-enrolled students used to learn about colleges, but some students faced difficulty locating important information. Forty-three percent of students using college websites had trouble finding how much a college costs, and 42 percent had trouble finding information about financial aid and scholarships.

Lack of information or misinformation can hinder a student’s enrollment and graduation. The federal government and institutions both play an important role in improving the availability, quality, and simplicity of information about higher education. In addition to the Obama administration’s recent announcement of using prior-prior year taxes to help simplify the financial aid process, the federal government should:

  • Provide better student progression, college completion, and post-graduation outcome data
  • Simplify grant, loan, tax credit, and loan repayment options
  • Mandate minimum accountability standards to ensure students don’t enroll in institutions where they are likely to end up with debt and no degree

Institutions helping students find and use information should:

  • Make campus visits more accessible and affordable
  • Improve and refine their Search Engine Optimization, so students searching for information can find it easily
  • Increase transparency and trust by providing accurate information about cost of attendance

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 were released during the spring, summer, and fall of 2015 and covered such topics as:

  • 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