On one side of the spectrum is significant data suggesting that college is a very wise investment. The New York Times reported in May 2014 that “Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree.”
In the middle are analysts who offer caveats. For example, PayScale calculates the financial returns of different college degrees by comparing earnings data of graduates across a variety of majors alongside the real cost of their degrees. While some degrees are clearly a good bet (engineering), the PayScale study found that 46 degrees generated a return worse than simply investing in Treasury bonds, and 18 actually generated a negative return.
And at the other other end is billionaire Paypal founder Peter Thiel, who famously offers a $100,000 fellowship to young people who opt to develop a big idea rather than attend college.
In December, the Obama administration released a federal framework for rating colleges and universities, hoping to provide some guidance to consumers. The proposed system would rate institutions on access, affordability, and performance, and would tie those ratings to federal financial aid. A two-month public comment period will bring intense discussion about if or how this will help consumers make decisions about college; whether the plan ultimately becomes a reality is up to Congress.
With such conflicting narratives in the headlines, we decided to ask parents what they care about when looking at colleges. The results were enlightening and should inform how colleges and policymakers think about consumers of higher education.
We surveyed 985 parents belonging to two groups: high school parents and college parents. High school parents are parents of high school students who are applying to college or plan to apply to college; we surveyed 712 of them. College parents are parents of current college students and students who graduated from college in the past year; we surveyed 273 of them.
The most significant findings were:
- When looking at colleges, parents of high school students are most concerned that a college is a good fit for their child; 78 percent of them surveyed rated this as highly important.
- Parents of current college students and recent college graduates reported that there is a gap between what they want and what colleges provide. For example, 72 percent of those surveyed ranked “acquisition of real-world marketable skills” as highly important, but only 43 percent of them felt that their child’s college delivered on this objective.
- School rankings figure only minimally in the college search. Just 15 percent of parents said that rankings were highly important.
- Parents no longer expect a four-year college experience to be the norm. Even though additional time in college corresponds to more spending (and often, more debt), less than half of parents (40.5 percent) said that graduating in four years was highly important.
- Cost does not trump all other factors, but paying for college is a significant concern among families. Of college parents, 60 percent rated affordability as highly important when they were looking for a college; 49 percent said it was highly important that their child graduate with no debt for the family, and 52 percent deemed it highly important that their child graduate with no debt. Among parents of high school students, 66 percent said affordability was highly important; 55 percent said they wanted no debt for their family, and 55 percent said they wanted to no debt for the student.
What Parents Want
We gave parents a list of factors and asked them to rate each factor’s importance on a scale from 1 (least important) to 10 (most important). The numbers below reflect the percentage of parents who rated each factor as highly important (9 or 10 on the scale). First, we asked about factors concerning student outcomes.
For parents overall, the most important factors were:
- Safe environment (74.5%)
- Acquisition of real-world marketable skills (73%)
- The college is a good fit (72.5%)
- A first-rate academic experience (70%)
- Affordability (63%)
For high school parents, the most important factors were:
- The college is a good fit (78%)
- Safe environment (75%)
- Acquisition of real-world marketable skills (74%)
- A first-rate academic experience (68%)
- Affordability (66%)
For college parents, the most important factors were:
- Safe environment (74%)
- Acquisition of real-world marketable skills (72%)
- A first-rate academic experience (70%)
- The college is a good fit (67%)
- Affordability (60%)
Percentage of Parents Who Rated Each Factor as Highly Important
Parents in the survey reported low rates of concern regarding diversity. Only 28 percent thought it was very important that their child be exposed to racial and cultural diversity, only 22.5 percent to economic diversity, and only 15 percent to political diversity. A substantial caveat here is that our sample was less racially diverse than college-going families overall; 86.6 percent of respondents were white, while only about 60 percent of college students nationwide are white. These survey findings suggest a surprising lack of interest in racial, cultural, economic, and political diversity among white parents, but the question requires further study.
After inquiring about their expectations, we then asked college parents how well they think their child’s college delivered. There were some significant gaps between what parents wanted and what they think they got.
The biggest disconnects were:
- Acquisition of real-world marketable skills (29 percentage-point difference)
- Ability to get into a good graduate or professional school (26 percentage-point difference)
- Graduating with no debt for him/herself (20 percentage-point difference)
- A first-rate academic experience (19 percentage-point difference)
Percentage of Parents Who Rated Each Factor as Highly Important vs. Percentage Who Were Highly Satisfied
We also asked parents about a few other issues that feature prominently on campuses and in the headlines.
Parents in the survey were very concerned about two issues in particular:
- Enforcement of a sexual assault code (82%)
- College understanding of the financial pressures on middle-class families (76%)
Very few parents were concerned about two other hot-button issues on campus:
- Enforcement of speech codes and trigger warnings (15%)
- Enforcement of an anti-Israel boycott (7%)
Percentage of Parents Who Agree or Strongly Agree a Factor Is Important
Anticipating Rising Costs
Over the past 36 years, college tuition and fees have increased 13-fold (1,225 percent), far faster than consumer goods, medical expenses, or food. While the increase has slowed in recent years, costs still continue to inch up.
With this in mind, we asked high school parents how likely they would be to recommend various cost-cutting strategies to their children:
- Attending community college for a year or two (52%)
- Attending only a college that offers a substantial financial aid package (65%)
- Enlisting in the military first (13%)
In addition, more than half said they would be somewhat or very likely to vote against their state (53 percent) and federal (51 percent) elected officials who don’t do something meaningful to lower the cost of college.
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