UCLA’s CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey is the largest and longest-running survey of American college students. Since 1966, more than 15 million first-time, first-year students have responded to an evolving list of questions designed to get at who they are and what they care about.
This year’s study reflects the attitudes and trends expressed by 165,743 freshmen entering 234 four-year colleges and universities of “varying levels of selectivity and type in the United States.”
And not surprisingly, financial considerations are exerting more influence than ever on incoming freshmen, with college costs and financial aid playing an increasingly decisive role in school-selection.
Although more than three-quarters (75.5 percent) of those surveyed were admitted to their first choice college in 2013, only 56.9 percent enrolled—the lowest proportion since CIRP first measured these outcomes in 1974. At the same time, the percentage of students indicating that cost was a “very important” factor in their college-choice process skyrocketed to 45.9 percent—an increase of nearly 15 percentage points from 2004 and the highest in the 10 years CIRP has collected this information.
In addition, the percentage of students indicating financial aid was a “very important” factor in their selection was also at its highest point in the 42 years since the question was first asked. Almost half (49 percent) reported that a financial aid offer was “very important” to their decision to enroll at their current campus—up from 34 percent in 2004.
“The difficult financial decisions that students and their families have to make about college are becoming more evident,” said Kevin Eagan, interim director of CIRP. “Over 62 percent of students who were admitted to but did not attend their first-choice college said they were offered aid by the institution they chose to attend.”
Perhaps this is because almost 69 percent believed that current economic conditions significantly affected their college choice—up from 62 percent three years earlier when the question was first asked. In fact, increasing numbers of first-year students (14.9 percent) reported they could not afford their first choice school in 2013.
As a result, students are looking for job-related benefits in their choice of college. In fact, 86 percent of incoming freshmen cited “to be able to get a better job” as a very important reason for enrolling—considerably up from the reported low of 67.8 percent in 1976.
Although academic reputation still weighs heavily in college choice, it’s clear that financial realities may be having a very real effect on the final decision to attend. And these considerations appear more important than the likelihood that they’ll ever graduate, as less than a third of the survey respondents even considered graduation rates an important factor in their choice of college.
In fact, the CIRP survey probed student awareness of time it takes to graduate. Responses indicated that over 84 percent expect to graduate from the college they had just entered in four years. This represents a major disconnect between expectations and reality, as the national four-year graduation rate currently hovers around 38 percent.
The following are the 23 reasons for choosing a college that students were offered in the UCLA survey. The percentages provided indicate what portion of students surveyed considered these factors “very important.”
- College has a very good academic reputation (64 percent)↑
- This college’s graduates get good jobs (53.1 percent)↓
- I was offered financial assistance (48.7 percent)↑
- The cost of attending this college (45.9 percent)↑
- College has a good reputation for social activities (44.1 percent)↑
- A visit to the campus (42.9 percent)↑
- Wanted to go to a college about this size (37.6 percent)↓
- Grads get into good grad/professional schools (33 percent)↑
- Percent of students that graduate from this college (29.7 percent)↓
- Wanted to live near home (19.6 percent)↓
- Information from a website (18.3 percent)↓
- Rankings in national magazines (17.6 percent)↓
- Parents wanted me to go to this school (17.6 percent)↑
- Could not afford first choice (14.9 percent)↑
- Admitted early decision and/or early action (14.3 percent)↑
- Not offered aid by first choice (10.9 percent)↑
- High school counselor advised me (10.3 percent)
- Athletic department recruited me (9.4 percent)↑
- Attracted by religious affiliation/orientation of college (8.3 percent)↑
- My teacher advised me (6.8 percent)↑
- My relatives wanted me to come here (6.8 percent)↑
- Private college counselor advised me (4.5 percent)↑
- Ability to take online courses (3.8 percent)
Note that the cost of attending a college now outweighs a campus visit as “very important” in influencing final choice, and for the third consecutive year, the percentage of students describing the role of private college counselors as “very important” increased while the role of rankings in national magazines decreased.
For more information or to download a complete copy of the report, visit the HERI website.