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Winter for Higher-Ed
Students Say No to Expensive Schools

More bad news for colleges: The number of students choosing not to attend their first-choice school for financial reasons has hit an all-time high. An annual UCLA report found that more students than ever before consider price and availability of financial aid “very important” when making decisions. This may seem like common sense, but it has colleges worried, as Inside Higher Ed reports:

“As state economies have recovered, we haven’t really seen all of those dollars come back into higher education, and it’s concerning that they may be gone for good,” said Kevin Eagan, interim director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, which publishes the report annually. “Institutions cannot be too comfortable resting on their laurels and expecting that academic reputation will carry as much weight, or more weight, than any other factor in whether admitted students choose to enroll.” […]

While up-front price was not the most-cited reason why students chose the college they did — those are still the institution’s “very good” academic reputation (which 64 percent of students said was “very important”), and its graduates’ job placement rates (“very important” to 53.1 percent of students) — the importance of costs should outpace those other factors within five years or so if it keeps rising at the current rates, Eagan said.

This shift has been a few years in coming, but it’s the latest sign that higher ed industry is coping with an increasingly price-conscious customer base, which will make it more difficult for schools to keep raising tuition to stay in the black. Worse, enrollment is plateauing as well, causing problems for schools planning to make up for lost tuition by admitting more students. This doesn’t spell doom for the industry, but schools that have grown accustomed to decades of easy living will need to start tightening their belts if they want to survive. Administrative budgets should be the first to feel the pinch.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The fact that academic reputation is significantly more important to students than graduates’ job placement is a commentary on their preparation for the real world.

  • Boritz

    “Administrative budgets should be the first to feel the pinch.”

    And sports, especially football, should be the last. Well, will be the last. After all, they are profit centers.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Something that so much writing about higher education fails to get right: there is a huge difference between the situation of the few thousand elite students who truly are at the top of the pack in terms of intellectual capacity and academic performance, and the situation of everyone else. Those few thousand elites can and will be served by the few dozen elite institutions; they are made for each other. Those institutions do not have slots for the massive numbers of non-elite students, most of those non-elite students can’t afford them (and lack the academic performance to get the most generous financial aid offers), and most of those non-elite students would be outperformed by their elite peers at best, and might very well end up just flunking out.

    The elite students can take care of themselves, and in any case they will get plenty of advice. It is the massive numbers of non-elite students that need good advice, and it has to be different advice than that going to the elite students.

    The most important advice is to not start what you can’t finish. If you are not sure about whether or not you can cut it at college, start off with just one or two community college courses first; if you can make it through those, then you can attempt to get a degree.

    Equally important is to make the most of your coursework. Most students make two mistakes: 1) they are totally focused on a track of courses that will promise immediate employment after graduation, but give no thought to equipping themselves for adapting continually to a changing economy and changing world over the course of their lifetime; or 2) they pick courses and majors that might be interesting and might even develop themselves in good ways as people, but they graduate essentially unemployable, incapable of actually doing anything that prospective employers might want and need. There are majors that offer both short-term employment prospects and long-term personal development, and those are the ones that these non-elite students should select. These non-elite students also need to see their general education and elective courses as not being mere hoops to jump through or opportunities for fun, but rather as opportunities to add more tools and skills to their intellectual toolbox. You never know; the statistics or foreign language or advanced technical writing course that doesn’t seem to be useful in one’s first job might end up being extremely useful five or ten years later.

    It seems to be the case that at most of the elite schools, the students are pretty serious, while many of the non-elite schools are party schools. We have the idea that college should be about four years of fun. It is an extremely expensive way to have fun – too expensive for most non-elite families. Non-elite students need to understand that they will spend less money (and/or rack up less debt), learn more, and actually be better prepared for a productive and successful career if they give up on the idea of four years of fun altogether. For most non-elite students, the best plan will be: 1) to take as many dual-enrollment community college courses while still in high school (or else take AP courses); 2) to get the first two years of college out of the way at their local community college, commuting from home and maybe working part-time as well; 3) to finish up at the least expensive (considering both tuition and living expenses) public university campus that offers their major, carrying the heaviest loads possible and maybe taking some online courses to supplement between semesters, in order to graduate as quickly as possible, maybe even a semester early. This is a feasible plan, and for most people will keep the cost down to a very small fraction of what four years of an elite school would cost.

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