Cost diverting college students from first choice

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Smaller percentages of college freshmen are attending their first-choice schools than at almost any time since the mid-1970s, according to a nationwide survey.

A significant reason for the decline, according to the survey's lead author, is cost.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Sophomore Jared Stabiner, 20, of Chicago, picks the University of Pittsburgh over the University of Denver.
Click photo for larger image.

Chart: Settling for less than first choice

The findings, released today by a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles, come amid intensifying debate in Washington over the impact of price on college access and what the government's response should be.

The survey is based on answers from 271,441 freshmen polled at 393 schools. It found that 67.3 percent of those students were attending their first college picks, the second-lowest share since researchers with UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute began asking the question in 1974.

Among those attending their second-choice schools, 49.8 percent also had been accepted by their first picks but bypassed them.

"Why aren't they going there? That's the big story," said John H. Pryor, the survey's lead author.

He said this year's survey was the first time the freshmen who did not attend their first choices were asked if they had been accepted to them.

The share of students attending their top picks was highest, at 79.7 percent, in 1975 and has been trending downward. The only year it was lower was in 1988 when it was 66.7 percent.

Picking a college is a complicated endeavor, and the study offered no overriding explanation for the decline.

A sampling of students on university campuses in Pittsburgh yesterday reflected the same variety of reasons shown in the survey.

Jared Stabiner, 20, of Chicago, is a sophomore majoring in marketing at the University of Pittsburgh. He applied to six colleges and was looking forward to attending the University of Denver, his first choice.

"It was small and beautiful," he said. "I love snowboarding, and it has a great business school. It was a perfect size for me. But it was a lot of money. I could have afforded it, but it would have involved more loans I'd be paying back.

"Actually, I liked Pitt as soon as I stepped on campus. The business school is on the rise. But money was the first issue."

Renata Stone, 21, of Roanoke, Va., is a junior studying psychology at Pitt. Her first choice was Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "It was closer to home, I liked the campus, liked their medical program, I had friends who were going there -- it was just one of those diehard first-choice schools for a long time. It just felt good."

She ended up at Pitt, she said, as "a fluke. I got a free application in the mail, and I just did it to see. I got accepted, and I got more financial assistance here at Pitt than any other school, even in-state [in Virginia].

"It worked out, because I love Pitt."

Similar sentiments were expressed by students at Carlow, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities.

David Stone, 19, of Rockville, Md., is a freshman majoring in physics at Carnegie Mellon. His first choice, however, was Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"But it wasn't as practical," he said. "I think Carnegie Mellon actually was more expensive, but I got more financial help from Carnegie Mellon. And Pittsburgh has everything I could want in a city, including the outdoors activities."

"It certainly seems like financial issues are very significant," Mr. Pryor said. The survey showed that one in five students who settled for their second choices because they could not afford their top picks.

For Ashley Recupero, 21, of Akron, Ohio, it was more than just the money. A senior majoring in psychology at Duquesne, her first choice was Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.

"But the location [bothered me]," she said. "It's about three hours from Akron, out in the middle of nowhere. And I like living in the city. I like Pittsburgh, and I knew I wanted to be somewhere where there was stuff going on, not stuck out in the middle of farmland."

With more applications out there, competition among the nation's 17 million college students for a limited number of seats has become increasingly fierce.

If the UCLA survey means students qualified for top-flight schools are going elsewhere for financial reasons, including lack of adequate aid, that's a concern, said James Boyle, president of the Arlington, Va.-based College Parents of America, a national advocacy association.

But of greater importance, he said, are students' prospects for success and a leveling off that is occurring in the percentage of high school graduates nationally who are choosing to pursue college.

"Those issues would be of greater concern than whether or not a student is at his or her top pick," he said.

Experts say decisions that students and families make about whether a school is affordable can be highly subjective.

For instance, a year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Crawford County, costs $35,300, yet the average financial aid award of $21,575 makes the actual price closer to the sticker price at some of the state's public research campuses.

This week, the U.S. House voted to reduce interest rates on loans pegged to need. In September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings called for replacing the current system for financial aid as part of a broad effort to overhaul higher education.


Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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