Why Some of the Best and Brightest Skip College

Study finds that steep price and perceived unavailability of financial aid are the overwhelming reasons some college-qualified high school students don't enroll.
November 14, 2008

Many college-qualified students who choose not to enroll in college may have made up their minds well before high school graduation, according to a new study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy and underwritten by the Education Resources Institute. The study also finds that the steep price of college and the shrinking availability of financial aid are the primary reasons these students -- and their guidance and college counselors -- cite for their decision not to enroll.

Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the policy institute, said having a well-informed understanding of why students who are qualified for college choose not to enroll will help policy makers and educators improve access to higher education. The results of this study, she said, show the complex nature of the question many students face when they decide whether to attend college.

The institute’s report defined as “college qualified” those who had earned at least a 2.5 high school grade point average (GPA), taken a “college-preparatory curriculum" including but not limited to some Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, and taken some levels of advanced mathematics (algebra I or II, pre-calculus, calculus, and/or trigonometry). The survey included the responses of nearly 1,800 of these students -- about 1,000 of whom did not enroll in college. Additionally, it included the responses of about 600 guidance and college counselors from high schools around the country.

Those students who did not enroll in college were disproportionally members of minority groups -- 48 percent Hispanic, black, Asian, or American Indian/Native Alaskan -- and many were from low-income families. The survey finds that many of these students did not take the basic steps to enroll in college. Only 32 percent of non-college goers visited a college while still in high school. Additionally, only 10 percent took the SAT and seven percent took the ACT.

Even so, most non-college goers were significantly above what the survey defines as the minimum standards of college qualification. Nearly two-thirds of non-college goers reported that they had received advice on the coursework needed for college, more than half had a GPA higher than 3.0, and almost 60 percent had taken some sort of mathematics capstone course -- pre-calculus, calculus or trigonometry.

In determining why these students chose not to attend college, the survey finds that financial concerns were among the most significant barriers. More than 80 percent of non-college goers reported that the availability of financial aid was either “extremely” or “very” important in their decision not to enroll. Additionally, 63 percent said the price of college was either “extremely” or “very” important in the decision. College counselors echoed a similar reason for their students’ decision not to enroll -- 70 percent reported that a lack of financial aid or high tuition was “almost always” or “frequently” among the reasons they heard.

Combined with these financial concerns, some non-college goers expressed an aversion to borrowing money and a lack of knowledge about the risk of loan default. A third of these students reported this to be “extremely” or “very” important in their decision. While this is low compared to other financial reasons, taking on loans proved to be more of a concern for Hispanic non-college goers -- two-thirds of whom “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “loans are only good as a last resort or in an emergency.”

Willis J. Hulings, III, president and CEO of the private loan guarantor TERI, noted that the data for this survey were pulled before the current “credit crunch” and cautions that he anticipates greater difficulty for those who view loans as a barrier to college education. Still, he said there could be any number of reasons some non-college goers do not take out loans and are subsequently priced out of higher education.

“In this case, if you look at low-income families in particular, I believe you may have some who have experienced a relative who had difficulty with a credit card or had a car repossessed,” Hulings said, noting that the higher education policy institute will release a more in-depth study on reasons for debt aversion in December. “Some folks may be culturally averse to debt. They may not believe in using debt for anything and working on a kind-of cash basis.”

Opportunity cost also factored into the decision of many not to enroll in college. Thirty-eight percent of non-college goers expressed a need to work, and 24 percent of these students said they faced the obstacle of family obligations -- such as raising a child or caring for a sick relative.

No matter the reasons qualified students chose not to attend college, both Cooper and Hulings both said that more accurate and easily accessible information needs to be available to help reverse this trend. Although counselors responded that a lack of information about financial aid and college admission were among the least of the worries their non-college goers expressed, the survey notes that many students may not know how to process the information being given to them. Hulings said that at many public high schools, one counselor may be responsible for upwards of 400 students. This strain on the system, he said, might account for some of the misinformation about financial aid, loans and the college admission process.

IHEP recommends a number of policy steps to deal with the concerns raised in its study. Among its recommendations, the study states that high schools should set “clear expectations about academic requirements at an early stage” by making the college preparatory curriculum the norm for all students, regardless of their intentions regarding postsecondary education. Additionally, the study recommends that high schools establish a required course on “college planning” as early as the seventh grade.

“All individuals should be given the opportunity to reach their full educational potential,” Cooper said, acknowledging that this need not imply college is a destination for all students. “We should have high expectation of all our students, no matter where they come from. We can’t afford to lose millions of students in the pipeline just because they are financially needy. As a society, we assume people who don’t have money have less potential. We don’t believe that at IHEP.”

Aside from changes in the classroom, the study also suggests that states and the federal government make early commitments -- at least at the beginning of high school -- to meet the college costs of students who meet “certain standards of college readiness.” Hulings cited the example of Georgia’s Hope Scholarship Program -- which guarantees a student full tuition to a state college for a certain number of credit hours if they graduate with a 3.0 average GPA or better in high school. Cooper, however, cited Indiana's Twenty-first Century Scholars Program as another model. This program pays four years of tuition at a public state institution for low-income students who maintain a cumulative 2.0 GPA in high school. Hulings and Cooper both said that other states are likely to follow these models of early commitment, adding that this may lure many qualified students who now choose not to enroll in college.


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