Washington, D.C., Nov. 14, 2008—Despite being academically qualified, many of the nation’s high school students face influential misconceptions and barriers that deter them from pursuing a college education. Some challenges deterring college-qualified students from enrolling may include mixed messages about academic preparation, financial concerns, poor understanding of admission and financial aid application processes, and limited community encouragement. These reasons are especially true for high-achieving students from disadvantaged populations, such as minorities and those with low incomes, who already face additional adversities while on their educational path. Validating that these scenarios are a reality among some of the nation’s brightest students, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released new research offering insight into the leading reasons why these students do not enroll in college in spite of their academic qualifications.
The study, Promise Lost: College-Qualified Students Who Don’t Enroll in College, captures the attitudes and perceptions of college-qualified high school students and their high school counselors to find that most believe insufficient financial aid is the most influential barrier preventing college-qualified students from their higher education pursuits. Funded by the Boston-based nonprofit TERI (The Education Resources Institute), the report reveals that along with having concerns about how they would be able to pay for college, high schoolers believe other barriers play an instrumental role in thinking college is beyond their reach. In addition, the study reveals other perceived barriers include the lack of knowledge surrounding college cost and the availability of aid, the necessary steps needed to enroll in college, consideration for the opportunity cost, benefits to advance economically, and transparency about the amount and types of financial aid available.
Leading Reasons Why College-qualified Students Do Not Enroll in College
- College Cost and the Availability of Aid: College-qualified students pointed to college cost and the availability of financial aid as the reason they do not enroll in college; over 80 percent said that the availability of grant aid was “extremely” or “very” important to furthering their education, and 63 percent said that the price of college was “extremely” or “very” important in their decision making—reasons both supported by high school counselors.
- Taking the Necessary Steps to Enroll in College: Only 15 percent of college-qualified students who did not enroll even took the step and applied to college; 12 percent applied for financial aid; and, a mere 10 percent took the SAT and 7 percent the ACT. Additionally, only two-thirds received advice on the coursework they needed to take to be ready for college—suggesting the decision not to enroll was made early.
- Opportunity Cost: Many students believed that if they attended college, they would forgo wages or the time needed for family obligations. Black and low-income college-qualified students were particularly likely to state that the need to work was important in their decision not to enroll in college.
- Economic Mobility: Forty-eight percent of college-qualified students believe higher education is a vehicle to contribute to the civic, economic, and political welfare of their communities and the nation, compared to 67 percent of all students.
- Transparency about the Amount and Types of Financial Aid Available: A key issue and barrier to enrollment is the amount and types of financial aid available. Findings suggest that because some students believe that aid will be insufficient, they fail to fill out a financial aid application.
“Given the complexity of college-going behavior, this study provides a portrait of an overlooked group of students that deserves the immediate attention of state and federal policymakers as well as institutions of higher education,” said IHEP President, Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D. “Having a better understanding of why many college-qualified students do not enroll in college is an important step to improving college access and success for all students—particularly these students who already have intellectual capabilities to perform well in their education pursuits.”
Data from the student and counselor surveys of college-qualified students—the first such surveys ever undertaken by our account—suggest that the college-going decision is a complex undertaking, even for students who complete high school and are ready for college. While not painting a definitive picture of why college-qualified students did not enroll in college, survey results do raise several significant issues for policymakers and educators to consider.
Policy Considerations to Help College-qualified Students Enroll in College
- Federal, state, and local governments should consider introducing aid programs that provide early commitments or guarantees to high school students who graduate ready for college;
- Postsecondary institutions, state governments, and the federal government should consider implementing a range of policies related to work and aid that would help college-qualified students enroll in and succeed in college; and,
- Clear expectations should be established about academic requirements at an early stage to help reduce uncertainty and promote college going among college-qualified students.
“While previous research has focused on persistence issues facing those already in college, this study offers a truly different perspective by looking at those who are qualified but yet don’t attend,” said Willis J. Hulings, III, president and CEO of TERI. “The broad findings offer a stark view of the problems we face in attaining a higher college going rate—particularly among low-income and minority communities. The findings suggest that a substantial percentage of these qualified students make a very conscious decision to not go to college with predominate causal factors cited involving a perception of inadequate financial aid, high college costs, and a fear of borrowing. Given the existing difficulties in college financing, I fear that even greater numbers of qualified students are likely to opt out."
The full report, Promise Lost: College-Qualified Students Who Don’t Enroll in College, is available for download on IHEP’s Web site at www.ihep.org. Also available online are other IHEP publications offering additional data on college access and success efforts including Creating Change One Step At a Time: Efforts to Improve College Access and Success in Indiana, Noncognitive Assessment and College Success: The Case of the Gates Millennium Scholars, Increasing Student Success at Minority-Serving Institutions: Findings from the BEAMS Project, and Higher Education in Michigan: Overcoming Challenges to Expand Access.