Recent Survey Reveals the Most Important Factors in the College Decision-Making Process

Posted By Terri Williams on August 18, 2015 at 11:48 am
Recent Survey Reveals the Most Important Factors in the College Decision-Making Process

The 2015 College Decisions Survey, from New America’s Education Policy Program, reveals the many factors that students and prospective students weigh in their quest for a post-secondary education.

The survey includes the responses of 1,011 online interviews with U.S. residents between the ages of 16 and 40 who do not have a college degree, but are either enrolled in or intend to enroll in a two- or four-year college within the next 12 months.

The results, displayed in full below, show that students are driven to go to college largely to improve their employment prospects and earn more money. However, they are also motivated by a desire to learn – about a specific area of study and the world – become a better person, and improve their self-confidence.

As for choosing a particular college? Students’ main decision-making factors are the majors and programs offered, the ability of financial aid, and how much the school costs to attend. Perhaps surprisingly, they are least motivated by friends’ recommendations, athletic teams, student groups or organizations, and having friends that attend that college.

The survey asked participants, “How important is each of the following to you as a reason to go to college?”

To improve my employment opportunities 91%
To make more money 90%
To get a good job 89%
To learn more about a favorite topic or area 85%
To become a better person 81%
To improve my self-confidence 76%
To learn more about the world 74%
To make a better life for my children 61%
To set an example for my children 60%
To switch jobs or change careers 58%
To meet new people 54%
My parents wanted me to go 42%

Respondents were allowed to select more than one answer.
Respondents were also asked, “How important was/is each of the following to you when considering a college or university to attend?”

The majors/programs that are offered 93%
Availability of financial aid 88%
How much it costs 88%
Where it is located 81%
How many graduates find full-time employment in the field within six months 78%
The percentage of students who graduate 74%
Average starting salaries for graduates 70%
The average amount of money students borrow 70%
Student loan default rates 68%
Recommendations of high school guidance counselor 46%
Recommendations from friends/family members 45%
Student clubs, groups, organizations 35%
Having friends who attend or will attend 28%
Athletics or sports teams 23%

Respondents were allowed to select more than one answer.
Financial considerations are often the driving factor behind the decision to attend college – and where. GoodCall asked several experts to weigh in and offer advice to prospective college students.

According to Ethan A. Zagore, Director of TRiO Programs at the University of Notre Dame, “Students and parents must consider the entire cost of attending college, including non-traditional expenses such as travelling home during the holidays, and the availability of discretionary money for the attendee.”

However, Zagore warns against letting “sticker shock” dissuade students from applying to certain institutions. “Not only are in-state tuition discounts available, but academic scholarships and financial aid packages can assist in covering costs. Also, multiple institutions are now waiving out-of-state fees in an effort to attract excellent students nationally.”

This is especially important to certain groups of the population. The survey reveals that students from families in the lower-income bracket are most likely to select a college based on cost, and also most likely to be constrained by location.

David Bakke of says, “Research shows that those in the lower income demographic who achieve high test scores are concerned about cost the most – mainly because they stand to benefit the most compared to other demographic groups, but also because the financial cost presents a bigger burden to bear.”

However, Bakke explains that it’s also important for potential college attendees to understand the return on investment: “One survey showed that millennials graduating college average $17,500 more in annual salary than those foregoing higher education. And the Federal Reserve reports that over a lifetime, a college grad can expect to earn $830,800 more than someone who just graduates high school.”

Gina DeLapa, a former university career counselor and adjunct faculty member, and the author of Stuff You Already Know – And Every College Student Should, says that college is a financial investment – but more importantly, it’s an investment in yourself. “Yes, the price tag matters. Talk to any student who graduates tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and you know this to be true. But I would caution against treating a college education like a commodity.”

She says college isn’t just a means to an end. “It’s a place where students begin to forge their identities, make lifelong friends, and broaden their horizons – hopefully for a lifetime. Some schools, even if they don’t have the lowest tuition, will be a better fit than others.”

Joe Kitterman, CEO of 180 Skills, an online technical education company, offers an alternative view. “As a society, we continue to push young people straight out of high school into expensive universities where they accumulate a mountain of debt, when many are still unsure of their preferred career path.”

Meanwhile, he says the technical skills gap continues to grow, and thousands of good jobs go unfilled. Kitterman concludes, “We need to do a better job of encouraging people to consider alternatives to the traditional 4-year liberal arts education.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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