College applicants dispel 3 narratives currently hounding higher education

Harvard is high school applicants' top college choice this year, moving up two spots compared to last year's survey. MIT remains in the students' top three and moved up four spots for parents. 

Higher education leaders frequently cite the pressure they have to deal with from a caustic public, the media and even state and federal governments that are skeptical about their offerings. However, opinions from over 10,000 current college applicants and their parents suggest narratives surrounding higher education can differ vastly from those interested in attending U.S. institutions.

The Princeton Review’s “2024 Hopes & Worries” survey reached nearly 8,000 high school students and almost 3,000 of their parents in January and February to gauge some of the biggest factors weighing on their minds when applying for college. While nearly three-quarters of respondents recorded high levels of stress in the application process, 99% believed college was worth it.

Despite costs, students are more than willing to take the risk

Two-thirds of parents believe the total costs associated with their child receiving a degree would be over $100,000. As a result, parents and college applicants’ top concern in pursuing higher ed was the debt they would have to take on to obtain that degree (41%).

No matter the financial burden, respondents weren’t interested in playing it safe: less than a tenth prioritized affordability when choosing a college. Instead, they were looking for a college that was the best overall fit and offered the programs most suited to the college applicants’ career interests. Students and parents believed the most critical facet of a college degree was its potential to earn them a better job and higher income. Their intuition may be spot on as employers have recently affirmed their confidence in job applicants with degrees.

Despite parents’ and college applicants’ faith in a degree, they were also pragmatic. An average of 55% of students and parents said financial aid would be “extremely” necessary. Forms of financial assistance included education loans, scholarships and grants.

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Standardized test-taking may be roaring back

The rise of test-optional policies that began during the pandemic looked like they were here to stay due to reports suggesting they disproportionately hurt Hispanic and Black students. While thousands of colleges still maintain test-optional policies, students don’t give institutions’ policies much weight; 69% of respondents said admission test policies don’t affect their decision-making process on where to apply.

In fact, only 8% of students said they hadn’t taken the SAT, ACT or AP Exams. The primary motivation was that students felt like scores could distinguish their application. Dartmouth, Georgetown, MIT, Yale and the University of Texas at Austin recently reintegrated test-mandatory policies after citing evidence that they are a far more significant predictor of collegiate success than their high school GPA.

As high school students return to standardized tests to gain a competitive edge, it’s important to note that 32% believe exam-taking is the most challenging part of the application process.

Elite schools remain on top

Harvard, UPenn and MIT have received a walloping from wealthy donors, Republican lawmakers and the public since their former presidents’ showing at Congress over campus antisemitism. Despite plans to investigate widespread plagiarism among elite institutions, students and parents still declare some of the greats as their first college choice.

Most notably, Harvard is the students’ top choice this year, moving up two spots compared to last year’s survey. MIT remains in the students’ top three and moved up four spots on parents’ favorites.

Student Pick: Parent Pick:
1. Harvard College (Mass.) 1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2. Princeton University (N.J.)
3. Princeton University (N.J.) 3. Harvard College (Mass.)
4. Stanford University (Calif.) 4. Stanford University (Calif.)
5. University of Michigan 5. Duke University (N.C.)
6. Princeton University (N.J.) 6. University of Michigan
7. University of Texas – Austin 7. Yale University (Conn.)
8. Columbia University (N.Y.) 8. New York University
9. New York University 9. Cornell University (N.Y.)
10. Brown University (R.I.) 10. Brown University (R.I.)


Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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