What College-Bound Seniors Don’t Know About College Does Hurt Them
Do you have a college-bound teenager? If so, you are in the midst of the annual college application bonanza in the United States, one of our country’s biggest aspirational rituals, including months of test taking, campus visits and essay writing. Given the time, money and stress the college application process requires, choosing where and what to study is important. Conventional wisdom holds that college applicants rely a good deal on formal sources such as guidance counselors or websites about colleges for information on what to study. However, reality confirms that applicants rely more on other sources of information and that this choice has a lasting impact on the student’s future prospects.
A recent survey of 22,000 Americans conducted by Gallup and Strada Education Network finds that the majority of college-bound students consult informal sources of information such as family and friends when deciding what to study. This is especially true for students with college-educated parents. Nearly two-thirds of students whose parents have a graduate degree cite family and friends as their main source of advice.
While students whose parents did not go to college are much less likely to rely on family and friends for advice, they still consult them more than formal sources such as guidance counselors and official college data websites. The survey also found that roughly one-third of all respondents rely on informal sources in high school, such as a coach or teacher, and one in five on average rely on informal sources at work such as a coworker.
It is somewhat surprising, then, that survey respondents said informal work-based and school-based sources of information were the most helpful, followed by family and friends. Least helpful were formal sources such as guidance counselors and online college information.
How we get information about college and career choices matters a lot. Research by Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery has shown that low-income, high-achieving high school students often do not apply to selective colleges in part because they are less likely to interact with high-achieving peers and teachers who have been exposed to selective colleges. They have the scores to get into selective schools. They just don’t have the same networks as their higher-income peers.
Students could also be better served by better information about jobs and earnings. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that while expected earnings influence the decisions community college students make about what to study, they don’t have accurate information about how much particular jobs pay. Other studies have found that lower-income students who hope to go to college end up not applying for reasons, again, related to levels and sources of information. They simply don’t have the best information about how the college application process works, and neither do people in their networks.
Given the role that social capital — family, friends, classmates, coworkers and trust — plays in people’s college and career choices, creative policymakers should rethink how public resources are used to provide guidance to students navigating the higher education landscape. Our current education and workforce training institutions mostly rely on formal sources of career advice such as guidance counselors, one-stop centers and websites to disseminate career advice to aspiring teen and adult college students. Rather than hoping students ask the right guidance counselor the right questions, or visit a one-stop career center or a website, why not send them, their families and their teachers, personalized information telling them where students in their city with scores like theirs have been admitted to college? And why not inform people directly, in real time, about which jobs requiring which level of education are paying what? The technology exists to do this. It’s now a matter of creatively using it for the benefit of everyone, but most of all, for those who are disadvantaged by an information deficit in their informal networks.
Some companies are already providing real-time wage data in regional labor markets, and thanks to better state-level and college data, tools such as Launch My Career and College Abacus are available to help aspiring students understand the true cost of college and expected earnings in specific professions. Research by Ben Castleman at the University of Virginia has shown that individualized outreach to students through text messages can improve college enrollment and completion.
While formal information sources about college are still important, policymakers should be shifting public resources toward individualized outreach to prospective students, their families, teachers, coaches and employers. New technology combined with the trust that comes along with social capital could do more to help low-income students make smart career choices than one-stop centers, guidance counselors and ads on billboards and busses.
Ryan Streeter is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.