College Parents often ask what is college life really like. With polarized politics, rising student debt, mental health concerns, and increased institutional efforts to confront and prevent campus sexual assault represent some of the heated national topics that colleges and universities helped us measure in 2016.

One resource we greatly respect is the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). They recently published a monograph that is based upon 137,456 first-time, full-time students who entered 184 U.S. colleges and universities of varying selectivity and type in the fall of 2016.

We encourage parents to read the entire report as there are many useful discussions and data sets that may apply to your student. In addition, we have aimed to summarize a few of the highlights below:

RISING CONCERN OVER COLLEGE COSTS – The majority of incoming first-year students in 2016 expressed some level of concern about their ability to finance their college education. Over half (55.9%) of incoming students have some concern about their ability to finance college while 13.3% report that they have major concerns about their ability to finance college. These figures are a slight shift from 2015 when 52.6% of incoming students had some concern about their ability to finance college and 12.0% had major concerns.

MORE STUDENTS DECIDE AGAINST FIRST-CHOICE COLLEGE DUE TO COSTS: While students have shown less concern for the financial benefits of attending, the costs of enrolling at a specific campus has impacted their choice of college despite an improving economy. In 2016, a record 15% of freshmen felt they could not afford their first-choice institution—that’s a 60% increase from 2004 (9.4%), which was the first time this question was asked on the survey. In addition, the proportion of first-time, full-time students rating “not being offered aid by their first choice” as a very important factor in selecting their college has more than doubled from 4.4% in 1984 (when the item debuted on the Freshman Survey) to 11.5% in 2016.

STUDENTS ENROLL IN COLLEGES CLOSER TO HOME: This year’s incoming first-year students tended to enroll in colleges located closer to home than in previous years. Roughly 37.9% of incoming first-year students enrolled in an institution within 50 miles of their permanent residence, including 13.0% of FTFT students attending college within 10 miles of their permanent homes – nearly two percentage points higher than the 11.3% of students reporting the same in 2015.

CAMPUS VISITS—A GROWING VALUE IN CHOOSING A COLLEGE: Despite the availability of information about institutions on their websites or via social media, almost half of first-time, full-time students in 2016 considered a campus visit as very important (46.7%) in making their college choice.

MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS MORE SEVERE AMONG STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES, PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDERS, AND CHRONIC ILLNESS: Adjusting to the academic demands of college, moving away from home, or making new social connections represent just a few of the factors contributing to college students’ stress, anxiety, or depression levels, especially among new students with already existing stressors such as a disability, chronic illness, or psychological disorder. The Freshman Survey asks specifically if a student has a disability or psychological disorder, and students have the ability to mark as many of the options as applied. Collectively, these items give voice to students with specific diagnoses as well as those who lack a formal diagnosis or label. Overall:

  • 21.9% of incoming freshmen identified as having at least one disability/disorder.
  • Roughly 16.0% of the incoming class identified with one disability.

College Parents of America is grateful for the insights that HERI provides to college families.  As the nation’s largest and oldest empirical study of higher education, the research provides each of us valuable insight to support our college students as they seek to complete a college education.

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