Study: Fewer Students Can Afford Their Dream College
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The Fiscal Times
January 27, 2012

For college-bound high school seniors, good grades and high test scores have traditionally been their ticket to their dream school. And in theory those dream schools should be able to get the best and the brightest of all who apply. But increasingly, financial hardship among students is preventing that from happening. 

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A recent survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA finds that the percentage of incoming students attending their first-choice college or university declined in 2011 to 57.9 percent, down from 60.5 percent in 2010. This is the lowest the figure has been since 1974, when the question was first asked. For those who were accepted to their first-choice school, nearly 1 in 5 decided not to attend – primarily due to financial issues, according to John H. Pryor, one of the authors of the new report, titled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2011.” Pryor and his colleagues based their findings on data from 203,967 full-time freshman students entering 270 four-year colleges and universities.

One reason more students are foregoing their top school is the decline in financial aid options.The survey found that fewer incoming students are covering at least some of their expenses through grants or scholarships, falling from 73.4 percent in 2010 to 69.5 percent in 2011. The dollar amount of scholarships and grants was also down, but the percentage of students taking out large student loans has more than doubled: The portion of students borrowing $10,000 or more in the first year of college has gone from 5.6 percent in 2001 to 13.3 percent in 2011.

In addition, students are focusing more on jobs in deciding what college to attend. Nearly 86 percent said attending college in order to get a better job was “very important” in their decision making, up from 70.4 percent in 2006 – though a smaller portion of humanities majors (73.3 percent) said a better job was very important. “To learn more about things that interest me” was the second most-cited reason.

Despite many students not being able to attend their dream school, academic competition among high-school seniors has intensified.  More college-bound students are taking Advanced Placement classes and studying six or more hours a week. They’re also partying less (65.3 percent said they partied once a week in 2011, down from 69.7 percent in 2009) and more likely to come to class on time.

At the same time, state funding for higher education declined by nearly 8 percent over the past year, according to a Grapevine report released this week from the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. The report found that 41 states reduced funding due to the economy and the end of federal stimulus funds, with 14 states cutting funds by more than 10 percent – the worst offender being New Hampshire, which reduced state funds by 41 percent.

With dwindling college financing options for students, a college degree from a respected school may become less an indicator of future success, and more an indicator of wealth and privilege – contributing to the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Blaire Briody is a contributing editor at The Fiscal Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Publishers Weekly, among others.