Not All Students Are Becoming Savvier Shoppers

Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

Reprinted from The Chronicle of Higher Education - March 20, 2014

This year’s Freshman Survey from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (“Cost and Financial Aid Increasingly Influence Students’ Choice of College,” The Chronicle, March 6) highlights a startling gap in the way traditional and nontraditional students conduct their college searches.

My organization, Public Agenda, recently surveyed adults between 18 and 55 who don’t have college degrees but who are planning to go back to college. We also spoke to currently enrolled community college and for-profit college students. The experiences of these students are markedly different from those represented in the Freshman Survey—all full-time students at four-year colleges:

  • While most full-time undergraduates at four-year colleges have looked at multiple schools before deciding on where to enroll, most undergraduates in our research were not making any comparisons at all. Just 37 percent of community college students and 39 percent of students at for-profit colleges said they looked at more than one school before enrolling. Moreover, most learn about colleges from family, friends, or from advertising paid for by the college.
  • Even though improving job prospects weighs heavily on the minds of the currently enrolled students we spoke to, few know information about the types of jobs and salaries typical of graduates from their school. Among adult prospective students, few believe that knowing this information would be essential during their college searches.

It may very well be the case that some students are becoming savvier college shoppers, but certainly not all of them. Traditional students—e.g. those who attend school full time at four-year colleges—may be discerning and carefully comparing different schools to inform college choice. But this seems to not be the case among nontraditional students.

As the nontraditional students population steadily grows, and becomes the new traditional, we must make sure these students are not left out in the cold.

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