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Students' Biggest Concern About College? Cost

Financial considerations often are the driving factor behind a student's decision to go to college and which school to attend, according to a survey by independent think-tank New America.

The Washington-based nonprofit polled about 1,000 Americans ages 16 to 40 who planned to enroll in a two- or four-year college within the year or were in their first semester of college. It found price concerns dominate the college search, according to findings in the first part of its College Decisions Survey results released Thursday by the education policy program.

The top reasons respondents said they were going to pursue a degree were to improve economic opportunities (91 percent), to make more money (90 percent), and to get a good job (89 percent).

There was some variation by age. For example, students ages 16 to 19 were more likely than older respondents to say they were going to college because they wanted to learn about a favorite topic of interest, meet new people, or because their parents wanted them to go. Respondent ages 30 to 40 said they wanted to set an example or build a better life for their building.

When selecting a college, students were most concerned about the majors and programs offered (93 percent), availability of financial aid (88 percent), and specific college costs (88 percent). Asked to list the single most important factor, 63 percent named specific college costs.

As policymakers promote college access and success, they should focus on making tuition more affordable and making sure financial aid is targeted at low-income students, writes New America's Rachel Fishman in a brief analyzing the result of the survey, which was conducted online in late 2014.

She also advocates better tracking of student performance after graduation to give a clearer picture of the economic return on investment from getting a degree. Getting reliable data on post-college earnings requires rescinding the current federal ban on creating a student record system, argues Fishman. Doing so, she maintains, could help students make informed decisions about the payoff of college.

"Ideally, we like to think of college as an abstract opportunity for learning development and growth," writes Fishman. "It can and should be those things, but cost is a crucial and unavoidable context."

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