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Policy and Research Issues: Postsecondary Education

Issue: How do parents and students make decisions about postsecondary education?

Policy/Practice Questions: A combination of factors, including student academic achievement, vocational interests, parent finances, parental knowledge about sources of loans and grants, and a variety of student preferences combine to predict the decision to attend college and the choice of institution. A key question is: Why do some students, particularly first generation students, go to college and others don't?

HSLS:09 Role:

  • HSLS:09 provides data to understand the role of different factors in the development of a student's commitment to attend college and then to take the steps necessary to succeed in college (the right courses, courses in specific sequences, etc.). The study enabled NCES to move beyond the traditional covariates to ask "how do students and parents construct their postsecondary choice set?"
  • HSLS:09 questionnaires ask more questions of students and parents regarding reasons for selecting specific colleges (e.g., academic programs, financial aid and access prices, and campus environment). Compared to previous longitudinal studies, HSLS:09 was able to survey respondents during the critical junior and senior years regarding applications, acceptances, and rejections at colleges. A short computer-administered questionnaire procured information on college acceptances and actual choices. In past longitudinal studies, this activity has been delayed to later follow-ups (2 years after high school). By that time, it is difficult for respondents to accurately remember acceptances and rejections together with financial offers.
  • There is an obvious role for information to help parents and students better understand the choices available. With the HSLS:09 data, it is possible to examine questions such as: What is the relationship between parental aversion to debt and student preparation for college? When do students and parents start tangibly preparing and planning for college? How certain are they of the cost and process of applying to and attending college?
  • For many students, it may be the case that there is uncertainty and apparently bad information about the cost of college. It is unclear if parents know the real cost of education. If they think that college costs more than they can afford, students may not take the courses to get into college if the parents have concluded that college will be too expensive. The HSLS:09 study has expanded sections in the student and parent questionnaires that allow researchers to examine the effects of "bad information" regarding commitments that are made concerning attending college. It may also be possible for NCES to link information collected on FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms to HSLS:09 student records thus providing a clearer picture of family resources. Another issue is the number of students who attend community college initially because it costs less than a four-year college. Who chooses community colleges because it appears to be the only viable, economic option? Who chooses community college to better prepare for the transfer to a 4-year college?