STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It turns out Tao's situation is common. According to the American Freshman Survey, most students were accepted by their first-choice colleges last year; that's the good news. But when you look at the students accepted by colleges - their first choice - almost half actually enrolled somewhere else for financial reasons. To find out more, our colleague David Greene spoke with Sylvia Hurtado, head of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which conducts the survey.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Why are so few actually deciding to attend their first choice?
SYLVIA HURTADO: Well, I think it's a little bit of a difference between what the student wants and what the parents decide. (Laughter) So students will go and select campuses based on academic reputation, primarily, and also whether their - what particular majors they're interested in. And then they know that there's the sticker price and then there's also, really, the real cost. And that's based on whether or not the college itself offers any kind of scholarships, if they have federal financial aid. So the bottom line is, when you get those letters - students get those letters, they actually evaluate the bottom-line net cost, and they begin to think about the differences. And then the parents are obviously saying: What is it we can really afford?
GREENE: What are the possible implications of this, if we have a lot of students who are evaluating the cost and, in many cases, deciding not to go to the school they really wanted to go to?
HURTADO: Well, there are a few students who think they will transfer. From the minute they step on campus, they know they will transfer. And there are some colleges where there are high proportions of students who go in thinking, this is going to be the first step, but I'm going to move later to go to another campus that might have the major I need, or because they feel that it's easier to get into a particular college; then, they'll shift. So there's different strategies being played out, currently. And students know that there are other options. If they live in a large, urban area, they know that there are other options. And also, there are online options now. So we have a lot of student mobility. Students are taking courses at a variety of places, maybe at the same time they're attending their initial college.
GREENE: OK. So if I look at the net cost then and I decide, you know, it might still be too much; if I start thinking about a two-year community college, how do I decide if that might be a good match and a good way to start or if, you know, I should really be trying to get into that four-year program, if there's any way to do it?
HURTADO: Well, let me tell you what the bottom line is. If you start at a two-year, the likelihood of you completing a bachelor's degree is going to be much lower. And that's primarily because - not because there's bad teaching at the two-year colleges. It's that the larger number of students that are going there, are going there for a full variety of reasons. The two-year serves an important purpose, I think. Lots of times, they're geared to more specific, career-oriented kinds of certificate programs. If you went to a four-year where your peer cohort is actually very high aspiration, they all are expecting they're going to get the baccalaureate degree, that's a little different. So, I think one of the things that students don't think about - they certainly think about the faculty, the quality of faculty, the kinds of courses, whether it has the major they're interested in. But really, their peers are very important because they influence what they do, ultimately.
GREENE: As you look at the survey that you do, do you see minority and low-income students getting fewer opportunities to get higher education today, compared to 10, 20 years ago?
HURTADO: Well, I wouldn't say it was exactly fewer opportunities. Here's the real issue that's happening, is we are actually seeing demographic change in the high schools, and that's translating into the four-year colleges and universities. We are seeing significant change. And there are some states - for example, California, Texas, Florida and certainly, Georgia and some parts of the Midwest - have seen a large number of Latino students, and also an increase in Asian-American students. So we're actually seeing some diversity. The proportion of African-Americans has been relatively stable in higher education. Their numbers are not as increasing as much, and then also their making it through high school and beyond is still a problem. So, the proportions we have seen at four-year institutions haven't increased in the last, you know, couple of decades substantially. So we really are seeing an area that is of grave concern.
GREENE: Well, step back for me, if you can. We've had some weeks now of conversations that our listeners have been hearing, painting a picture of the world of higher education today as very frightening - you know, the best schools sort of locking out many less-affluent and minority students, costs getting so high that students, as your surveys have shown, you know, deciding they can't even try to go to their first-choice schools because they're too expensive. But if we look at this picture today, if I'm coming out of high school and interested in college, what position am I in, compared to someone 10, 20 years ago?
HURTADO: One thing is, you know, we have just experienced a wave of, you know, college-age students, and that's going to decline. So, I think that we might actually see some break in this. So, yeah, there is a lot of competition now, but I think also there could be some changes in the high-school-going age that will start to calm that a bit. And institutions really know that they, at some point, they have to really attend to students that they need to serve. And, I think, public institutions in particular are interested in serving students in the state and then also in their local communities, where perhaps economic development needs to happen. So I don't think it's all negative, in terms of what institutions are doing. I think that they actually do have a notion of serving the public good.
GREENE: Professor Hurtado, thank you so much for talking to us. I've learned a lot. We really appreciate it.
HURTADO: All right. It was fun.
INSKEEP: Sylvia Hurtado is director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, and spoke with our own David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And a last word from the first person we talked to a few weeks ago about paying for college - David Shirker, a student at Miami's Coral Reef High School. For years, his whole family has carried bag lunches and skipped vacations to save for college. Well, David just got some good news: He'll be attending a prestigious art school that he didn't think he'd be able to afford.
DAVID SHIRKER: I am attending the Tisch School in NYU. The Tisch School did actually offer me a substantial scholarship, where I still do have to pay a decent amount every year. But it's actually doable.
MONTAGNE: David's mom says they won't change their frugal habits until all three of the Shirker kids have graduated from college. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.