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Does First Out of the Application Gate Mean Most Likely to Graduate?

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

There are people who wait until the last minute, and then there are people like high school student Cree Bautista, who holds the honor of being the being the first student in the United States to apply to college this year, a mere three hours and thirty minutes after the "common application" form went online.

Only about a thousand students have followed his lead and submitted applications this year. That's still a fourfold increase over last year, and enough of a jump that some admissions officers are warning that there's no real advantage to getting applications in too early.

The hottest debate in higher education right now isn't about how students start college, it's about how shockingly few students actually finish. But the two are closely connected. And Public Agenda's research shows that those who drift into their college decision are more likely to drift back out again.

This isn't solely about money. In our survey, both young people who graduated from college and those who didn't said tuition and fees were an important factor in their decision. In fact the numbers were essentially identical (57 percent versus 56 percent). They're also neck-and-neck on how big a role scholarships and financial aid played in their decision (41 percent of those who didn't graduate said this was a factor, compared to 38 percent of those who did).

Nor is it really about process. True, those who say they received poor counseling in high school are less likely to go directly from high school into a college program—a decision that research shows is highly correlated with completing college. Yet when we asked young people what would help more people like them finish college, making the application process easier was ranked dead last, both for those who finished college and those who didn't.

Yet there is a difference between how different students pick a college, and in many cases the difference is the need to earn a living. Students who drop out are largely paying their own way, and more than any other factor, they cited the difficulty of juggling work, family and school as the reason that they left college.

With that in mind, other elements of the selection process make sense. For example, those who completed postsecondary education were more likely to say they picked their school based on the likelihood of getting a good job (57 percent), the major they wanted to pursue (54 percent) and the school's overall reputation (54 percent). They're also more likely to have parents who have four-year degrees.

Students who don't finish college, however, were much more likely to choose a school based on convenience to where they live or work (66 percent) and a class schedule that fit their needs (59 percent). They're more likely to say that their parents have only a high school diploma or less (41 percent versus 30 percent). And that makes sense: if you're working your way through school, you have to choose a school that fits your work schedule. Plus, if your parents haven't been through the college admissions process themselves, they're less able to help their children make choices.

The college admissions season is just starting cranking up, and if past years are any indication, we'll be seeing plenty more stories in the media on the high-pressure, high-stakes paper chase for top students headed for elite colleges. Those stories are perfectly real.

But many young people, perhaps even a majority, aren't living that life at all. They're making their decisions based on the juggling act they're going to face between work, school and family. And they're not getting much help. They have parents who don't know the application process, and overworked counselors who can't offer much help.

Until we face those realities of how students get into college, and what they go through while trying to stay in, we'll never be able to change the fact that so many give up on it.


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