What factors do students really consider when choosing college?

Reaction Blog for October 13, 2014 by Valerie Crespin-Trujillo, EPS 518

The number of factors influencing student choice in the pursuit of a college education are abundant: cost of attendance, types of available financial aid, institutional reputation, geography, proximity to family, and type of degree programs offered, among other key pieces of information that can be specific to the individual or more generalizable to the college-going population. Some of these factors outweigh others, like the example of the student from Tennessee testifying before the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Unlike a majority of students that are likely to weight the cost of attendance the most heavily when deciding where to attend college, this student stated she did not want for cost to be the deciding factor of her choice and she relied on other factors like the overall culture of the campus, the proximity to her home, and the offering of a joint degree program instead. While this may sound like a statement made by a student that does not have to worry about financing a college education, this student was coming from a single-parent home and was a Pell grant eligible student. She found access to information about the types of financial aid most helpful to her during her decision-making process.

What types of information are really best designed to help students understand the most important academic and financial decision they will be making in their young adult lives? Colleges and universities provide information about the cost of attendance, but the true price of going to college isn’t always reflected in that calculation. As Baum and Ma (2014) argue, the prices and required expenditures of a postsecondary education are not enough information to make judgments about affordability. Rather, it is the amount of expendable resources that can be directed toward college that should be a measure of how much people can actually afford.

What about financial aid awards-are they sufficient pieces of information to help students determine if they can pay for college? Senator Al Franken believes that one part of the problem impacting college-bound students is that colleges and universities do not use standardized names and definitions for different types of financial aid and students are unable to decipher the difference between sources, like grants versus loans. He introduced a bill, “Understanding the True Cost of College” Act that would require a universal financial aid letter from postsecondary institutions to help individuals applying to colleges more clearly understand their financial aid award.

Maybe the solution resides in the amount of informational resources that are available to high school guidance counselors? If they had the knowledge to inform students about all of the resources available to them from the federal and state governments, like Georgia’s HOPE scholarship awarding merit-based grants or Massachusetts’ MassGrant which is a need-based program, would more students in those states go to college? Would counselors advise students to choose the military as a means to postsecondary education if they knew more about the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that provides education benefits for veterans and their family members in the form of tuition payment, a monthly housing allowance, and a books and supplies stipend?

The decision to attend college is a deeply personal one requiring careful consideration of a wide variety of information. Finding a way to externally synthesize information to help students better understand their choices is useful, but it will probably never be the solution to problem of college affordability and students accumulating large amounts of student debt. Instead of trying to design ways to better inform students about the true cost of college and how to afford their education, wouldn’t it be a better use of time to find solutions that actually make postsecondary education affordable and accessible?

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