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There’s an interesting dichotomy in the decision-making process for higher education, a new study from Gallup and Strada finds. While people choose to pursue greater educational attainment for aspirational reasons, their choice of institution is based instead primarily on constraints.

The study is based on telephone surveys conducted throughout 2017 with almost 87,000 respondents ages 18-65. It comes at a time when US educational attainment rates are rising: 1 in 3 adults now has at least a Bachelor’s degree, and 1 in 8 has an advanced degree.

Respondents to the Gallup and Strada survey said that the main reason for choosing their level of education was career-related: a good job or career. This was the primary reason regardless of the respondent’s highest education level attained, gender, race/ethnicity, personal income or parents’ level of education.

In other words, the choice to pursue higher education – no matter the level – is primarily an aspirational one based on the promise of a better career or job.

A desire for learning and knowledge is a secondary factor, though it’s more prominent among those who have some college education but no degree. Access and affordability is of lesser importance to most, save for respondents who have technical and vocational credentials, for whom it’s their second-leading reason.

Of course, when it comes to getting a good job, the choice of degree also matters. In a separate report, Gallup and Strada found that the majority (53%) of college students surveyed believed that their major leads to a good job. Confidence was highest among those pursuing STEM degrees (62%), and lower among business (51%) and liberal arts (40%) majors.

Location and Affordability Weigh on Choice of Institution

While the decision to pursue higher education is typically made with a career in mind, that doesn’t carry over to the decision-making for the institution itself. Indeed, slightly fewer than 1 in 5 respondents to the latest study said that a good job or career was the main reason for choosing their institution.

Instead, participants were most likely to point to a constraint: location (28%). In this case, being close to home was far more important than being far from home. The general location of the institution also figured into the equation.

The next-most important factor overall was again a constraint: access/affordability. This relates most commonly to the price of the school and the reception of a scholarship/financial aid.

It’s worth noting that the foremost reason for choosing an institution did in this case vary quite significantly depending on the respondent’s highest level of education attained:

  • Those with a technical/vocational credential based their choice primarily on a good job or career, with location the secondary concern;
  • For those with some college/no degree or a 2-year degree, location was the main reason with access/affordability the second-most cited; while
  • For those with a 4-year degree location was still most frequently cited, but was followed by school reputation and fit; and
  • For those with postgraduate work or degree, school reputation or fit was the key consideration, ahead of access and affordability.

These results indicate that location took a backseat to school reputation and fit among respondents with more advanced degrees.

The full study can be downloaded here.

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