Survey Finds More Students Than Ever Choosing College for Financial Reasons

By Mark Pitsch — January 22, 1992 4 min read

More first-year college students than ever say they chose their postsecondary institution for financial reasons, according to a report released last week.

“The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1991,” the 26th annual report on the characteristics of first-year college students issued by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, indicates that 27.7 percent of the students studied said that low tuition was a “very important” reason for their choice of college. Last year, the figure was 23.4 percent, and it has steadily increased since the late 1970’s.

In addition, 27.8 percent of those surveyed said they chose their college because of financial-aid offers; last year, the figure was 25.2 percent, and it, too, has steadily climbed since the late 1970’s.

More students also reported that they chose their college so they could live near home: 21.3 percent in 1991, compared with 19.8 percent last year.

The percentage of students reporting that they likely would have to work at least part time in order to pay for college was also the highest ever.

“Taken together, these figures suggest that neither the financial aid nor personal or family resources is keeping pace with the costs of attending college,” the report states. “It thus appears that economic realities are forcing many students not only to go to work while attending college, but also to choose colleges on the basis of economic considerations, rather than educational ones.”

Need for Tutoring Up

The data are based on the responses of 210,739 students at 431 two- and four-year colleges and universities nationwide.

Among the other findings contained in the report:

  • Students who reported that they will need special tutoring or remedial work during college increased between 1981 and 1991 in each of the following subject areas: English, reading, mathematics, social studies, science, and foreign language.

A corresponding increase was found for students who said they had received tutoring or remedial work in high school in those subject areas.

  • The percentage of students who said they were planning careers in business fell for the fourth straight year; just 15.6 percent of the students--the lowest percentage since 1975 declared that goal, compared with 18.4 percent in 1990.

The peak came in 1987, when 24.6 percent eyed business careers.

  • Interest in teaching careers remained relatively stable--9.2 percent in 1991, compared with 9.4 percent in 1990--marking an end to the steady rise in interest in recent years.

The report is co-sponsored by the American Council on Education, which conducted the annual survey from 1966 to 1971.

Meanwhile, the A.C.E.'s own “Tenth Annual Status Report on Minorities in Higher Education” notes that some gains in minority enrollment in the latter part of the 1980’s may be jeopardized by the poor fiscal conditions of the states.

The report states that, between 1988 and 1990, African-American men increased their higher-education enrollment for the first time in eight years, by 7.4 percent, to 476,000. That figure topped the previous high of 464,000 enrollees recorded 10 years earlier, the report notes.

The number of African-American women continued to increase during the 10-year period, rising 8.7 percent to 747,000, according to the report.

But although the report notes that these figures portend “encouraging signs for the future,” A.C.E. officials are urging educators not to be overly optimistic.

“The fiscal pressure produced by the recession poses a clear threat to any hopes of improvement by minorities,” said Robert H. Atwell, the president of the A.c.E.. “This is not the time for any complacency.”

Mr. Atwell said the states’ fiscal problems are likely to lead to enrollment caps, higher-education budget cuts, and tuition increases, and he predicted that the cutbacks would hit potential minority enrollees first.

The report also notes that, while the college-going rate for African-American high-school graduates has increased since 1985, the gap between blacks and whites has not been reduced.

Racial Gap Remains

In 1990, 33 percent of black graduates ages 18 to 24, compared with 39.4 percent of white ones, were enrolled in college. In 1985, those figures were 26.1 percent and 34.4 percent, respectively.

During the same period, the report says, the college-participation rate of Hispanic students in that age group remained about 29 percent.

The high-school-graduation rate for Hispanic students ages 18 to 24 declined from 16.9 percent in 1985 to 15.8 percent in 1990, the report states.

Comparable 1990 rates are 25.4 percent for African-Americans and 32.5 percent for whites.

Over all, between 1988 and 1990, college enrollments increased 3.8 percent for whites, 8.2 percent for blacks, 10.8 percent for American Indians, 11.5 percent for Hispanics, and 11.7 percent for Asian-Americans.

Copies of the institute study are available for $20 each from the Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education, 320 Moore Hall, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024-1521.

Copies of the A.C.E. study are available for $10.50 each from the American Council on Education, Publications Department, One Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. 20036.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Survey Finds More Students Than Ever Choosing College for Financial Reasons