SAN FRANCISCO – A new survey of the nation's college freshmen has found that the percentage attending their first-choice school has reached its lowest level in almost four decades, as cost and the availability of financial aid have come to play an influential role in decisions of where to enroll.
The annual survey released Wednesday, conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, found that while more than three-quarters of those who started college last fall were admitted to the school they most wanted to attend, only 57 percent ended up going to their top school. That was the lowest rate in the 39 years that the institute has asked first-time freshmen if they enrolled at their dream college.
Kevin Eagan, the institute's interim managing director and an assistant professor at UCLA, said the cost of attending college appears to be largely responsible for the decline. A record 46 percent of students reported that cost was a very important factor in where they ended up, compared with 31 percent nine years ago. Meanwhile, the share of respondents who said being offered financial aid was a crucial factor in the decision to enroll at their current campus reached 49 percent — an all-time high.
"The difficult financial decisions that students and their families have to make about college are becoming more evidence," Eagan said. "Colleges that can reduce net costs to families are gaining an edge in attracting students."
Although many colleges are turning to online courses as a way to reduce costs and the time it takes to earn a degree, the survey showed that the idea was not very popular with students. Fewer than 7 percent indicated there was a very good chance they would take an online course offered by their college. The percentage was twice as high, however, among students at historically black colleges and universities.
Other key findings:
— A career in business remained the top post-college path among first-time freshmen, with 13 percent expressing interest in pursuing a career as an entrepreneur, accountant, executive, manager, consultant or administrative assistant or in the fields of human resources, sales and marketing, finance, real estate and sports management. Ten percent said they want to be doctors; 7 percent engineers; 5 percent classroom teachers; 4 percent actors, artists and musicians; and 3 percent lawyers or judges.
— More students think that peers who entered the United States illegally as children should have the right to a public education. This year, 41 percent agreed with the statement that such immigrants should be denied an education, a drop of 16 percentage points since 1996, when the institute first included the question in the survey in 1996.
— Freshmen students also showed strong support for gay men and lesbians who want to adopt children. More than 83 percent said they think gay people should have the right to adopt.
— While college campuses are often thought to be hotbeds of radical politics, only 3 percent of the survey respondents described their political leanings as far-left, and only 2 percent as far-right. More students, 46 percent, regarded their political beliefs as middle-of-the-road, while 28 percent saw themselves as liberal and 21 percent conservative.
The survey was based on the responses of 165,743 first-time, full-time students at 234 four-year colleges and universities. The responses were statistically weighted to reflect the broader population of such students — approximately 1.5 million at 1,583 four-year schools across the U.S.