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Emerging Insights from Maguire Associates'
College Decision Impact Survey

We've all been hearing for at least six months that college-bound students and their parents are worried about the economy more than at any time in the recent past. Our data thus far provide confirmatory evidence that a significantly higher percentage of students are concerned about the economy compared with our last national survey. This is not surprising, given the global recession coupled with the long-term financial commitment that college enrollment requires. Interestingly, high school juniors and seniors are expressing relatively equal concern, suggesting that there will be implications for Fall 2010 enrollment, as well.

Now, the critical period in which students and families seriously weigh admission offers and financial aid packages has begun. In the next several weeks, they will choose which college or university to attend. On what will they base their decisions this year? Early insights from our new College Decision Impact Survey suggest that affordability and financial aid are among the highest priority concerns of students and parents in this year’s college search and selection process.

Maguire Associates has invited prospective college students and parents across the nation to participate in a survey designed to understand emotions, motivations, and intentions of college-bound students and their families in light of the current economic climate. The survey was launched last month in partnership with FastWeb and The New School.

The Power of Evidence

More than 16,000 high school seniors and juniors and nearly 4,000 parents have already responded to the survey. With completion of the first-phase of data collection expected at the end of March, the College Decision Impact Survey will add the power of evidence to the many opinions and claims being made in the media and elsewhere about what students and parents are thinking, feeling, and intending to do.

While it is too early to reach any final conclusions from the data, significant trends are discernable. Given the urgency of the moment, we want to share these early indications with you, our clients and friends, in this edition of Insights for a Challenging Economy.

Our first round of insights from the data indicates that:

  1. As expected, many families' financial situation has worsened during the past two years and some parents anticipate they will be less able to help pay for their child’s college education than they had previously expected.
  1. The availability of merit- or need-based financial aid is more important to students than it was after the last economic downturn.
  1. The majority of students and parents report that their family’s concerns about the economy will “greatly” or “somewhat” influence the schools to which students have applied or will apply. Even among families earning over $100,000 per year, 1 in 10 say their application decisions are greatly influenced by the economy.
  1. Over a third of students report that they are likely to consider changing to a major that will be in greater demand or have a higher income potential.
  1. When asked to indicate the likelihood of considering alternative arrangements for their college education – living at home versus on campus, beginning at a two-year college and transferring to a four-year institution, taking a year off to earn money, etc. – the majority of students say they are, on balance, not likely to modify their plans in such ways.

Given these findings, it becomes evident that clear and frequent communication regarding families’ net costs and the composition of financial aid offers – the amount of grant awards relative to loans and work study assistance – can play an essential role allaying fear and reducing misunderstanding about affordability. Clear communication will be more important than ever.

Emotions, Intentions, and Actions

It is important to ask whether heightened emotions will translate into significant changes in intentions and actions with regard to imminent college enrollment decisions. At this stage in our data collection, strong expressions of uncertainty and fear do not fully correlate with stated intentions for action. For example, thus far there is no statistically significant relationship between students’ level of concern about the economy and their preference for a public or private institution. It remains a distinct possibility that the centrality of college education and the lifetime implications of college choice are so paramount that many students and parents may move beyond immediate concerns and make decisions based on what they believe is best for them in the long term.

We cautiously share this potentiality with you not to make a bold prediction, but to ensure that it is not merely the loudest, most apocalyptic voices being heard in this important national dialogue. In the important second phase of the survey, we will approach these students and parents again to find out what they actually chose to do and why. A tracking study of this nature enables us to do a highly refined analysis, not only of priorities and intentions beforehand but also of final enrollment decisions, allowing us to learn explicitly about the relationship between families' stated intentions and eventual actions in this uncertain economy.

The Really Big Questions

We are all seeking accurate, actionable answers to big questions concerning college choice and today’s economy. The results of the College Decision Impact Survey will help higher education professionals explore and calibrate answers to any number of questions about critical enrollment issues, such as:

  • Choice and Criteria: Will the economic crisis change what students and parents traditionally consider their most important search and selection criteria? How will application and enrollment choices vary across student subgroups? How much will distance-from-home and commuting opportunities factor into decision making?
  • Value and Affordability: How will students and parents evaluate tuition list price versus net cost, and how will they determine value? What role will costs and the availability of financial assistance play in students’ final college choice? How will the family’s mix of financing resources realign in the current environment?
  • Willingness to Change: Will students be more inclined than in the past to work part-time or even full-time during college, or even take a year off to work? Will more students view community college as a desirable alternative? Will there be a shift towards public institutions, and how large will it be? Will students be more drawn to pre-professional programs and move away from liberal arts?
  • What about Juniors? How will the preferences and plans of high school juniors (prospective Fall 2010 students) and their parents be affected by current economic conditions and what does that mean for recruitment during the next year? How will the views of juniors and their parents differ from those of seniors and their parents, if at all?

Maguire Associates is undertaking this effort as part of our ongoing commitment to provide the higher education community with the most current and meaningful insights in this challenging economy. We will share the full findings and comprehensive analyses of the College Decision Impact Survey this Summer.

For more information about Maguire Associates' National College Decision Impact Survey,
please call us at (978) 371-1775 or email us.

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