As college has become all but required for a well-paying career in today’s economy, those who are paying for higher education want to be assured of a good return on their investment. That is exactly how the prospective and recently enrolled students in this New America survey feel. Concerns about affordability and the potential payoff of college take center stage when they consider whether and where to enroll.

Idealistic notions of higher education—meeting new people, becoming a better person—aren’t the most important factors for most prospective students. Rather, the survey shows their decisions are driven by three primary goals:

  • Improve employment opportunities.
  • Make more money.
  • Get a good job.

For all but the wealthiest students, a school’s cost, programs of study, and availability of financial aid rank higher than its location.

In choosing a specific college, respondents overwhelmingly cited the majors and programs a school offers as the most important elements, followed by the availability of student aid and how much a specific college costs. In fact, cost was listed as the single most important factor in choosing a particular school.

Ideally, we like to think of college as an abstract opportunity for learning, development, and growth. It can and should be those things, but cost is a crucial and unavoidable context. As our survey shows, financial considerations often drive decisions about enrollment and college choice.

Institutions and policymakers must be aware of this as they consider how best to serve students. To do this, they must create policies that drive down the total cost of college and better target financial aid to the low- and moderate-income students who need it most.

In addition, policymakers should focus on using data to help students better understand the return on a college degree, especially the credential at a specific college.