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Students Are More Likely to Attend College if They Believe Family Can Afford to Pay

January 12, 2022

Student beliefs about family finances are related to college enrollment after high school

WASHINGTON (January 12, 2022)—The average student is more likely to attend college if the student thinks their family can afford to send their child to college, according to College Affordability Views and College Enrollment, a Data Point released today by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

“College affordability is a major concern for families, and paying for college looms large for students, particularly students who would be the first in their families to earn a degree,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr. “This new analysis reveals that students are more likely to enroll in college if they believe their family can afford to send them. A student’s belief in their ability to afford college may have important implications for how they search for information on paying for college while in high school or whether to apply.”

Family background has been shown in previous research to relate to the likelihood that a student goes to college. In particular, the higher the parent’s education level, the more likely a student is to enroll in college. This new analysis by NCES shows that differences in enrollment according to students’ beliefs about college affordability occur at all levels of parental education. 

College Affordability Views and College Enrollment uses data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009. This is a national study of more than 23,000 students in ninth grade in 2009. Students answered surveys between 2009 and 2016, and college transcripts were collected in 2017–18. This Data Point looks at the connection between views of college affordability in high school and college enrollment and employment 3 years after high school.

Key Findings

Perceptions of College Affordability

  • Students are more likely to attend college within 3 years of high school if they think their family can afford it. Students are also more likely to attend any college within 3 years of high school if at least one of their parents earned a college degree or certificate.
  • When most of the study’s students were in the eleventh grade, 32 percent of them agreed or strongly agreed that “even if you get accepted to college, your family cannot afford to send you.”
  • Three years after high school, 58 percent of students who thought their family could afford to send them to college (“afforders”) were enrolled in college. Only 38 percent of students who thought their family could not afford to send them to college (“non-afforders”) were enrolled.
  • Three years after high school, 80 percent of afforders had ever attended college, compared to 59 percent of non-afforders.
  • The difference in college attendance between afforders and non-afforders exists for students whose parents attended college and for students whose parents did not attend college. At each level of parental education, larger percentages of afforders attended college than non-afforders. The difference in college attendance between afforders and non-afforders ranges from 12 percentage points to 21 percentage points.

Family Background

  • The group most likely to have ever attended college 3 years after high school were students with at least one parent who had a bachelor’s or other college degree and who believed their family could afford college. Ninety percent of those students had ever attended college.
  • The group least likely to have ever attended college 3 years after high school were students whose parents, or only parent in single-parent household, had a high school diploma or less and who believed their family could not afford college. Fifty-five percent of those students had ever attended college. 
  • Three years after high school, 43 percent of non-afforders were employed only versus 32 percent of afforders. Twenty percent of non-afforders were not enrolled in college or employed, compared to 10 percent of afforders.

Visit https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2022057 to view the full report.

To learn more about the data used in this report, visit https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/hsls09/hsls09_data.asp.

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The National Center for Education Statistics, a principal agency of the U.S. Federal Statistical System, is the statistical center of the U.S. Department of Education and the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES fulfills a congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.

The High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09) is a nationally representative, longitudinal study of approximately 21,000 9th-grade students in 944 schools who will be followed through their secondary and postsecondary years. The study focuses on understanding students’ trajectories from the beginning of high school into postsecondary education, the workforce, and beyond. The HSLS:09 questionnaire is focused on, but not limited to, information on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers. It is designed to provide data on mathematics and science education, the changing high school environment, and postsecondary education. This study features a new student assessment in algebra skills, reasoning, and problem solving and includes surveys of students, their parents, math and science teachers, and school administrators, as well as a new survey of school counselors.

Contact: Josue DeLaRosa, NCES, ARIS.NCES@ed.gov, (202) 705-6692 OR James Elias, Hager Sharp, jelias@hagersharp.com, 202-355-4417