Research by Public Agenda, prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"One Degree of Separation", is the third of a series of Public Agenda surveys designed to examine the problems of higher education and college completion from the perspective of those who know best: young people who've completed a postsecondary degree, and those who haven't. With fewer than half of those who enter a four-year college finishing in six years, and with a debate raging over the value of a college education, the perspective of these young Americans is more important than ever.

In our first report, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," we asked young people why they didn't finish college, and what they said is surprising. Most of those who don't finish are paying their own way, and the reason they don’t finish is because the juggling act of school, work and family is too much for them. Something's got to give, and that's usually getting a degree.

The second report, "Can I Get a Little Advice Here?", asked young people about the help they got from the high school guidance system. In too many cases, the answer is "not much." With most reporting that they got minimal assistance from over-extended high school guidance counselors, they gave them bad grades for their advice on choosing colleges and careers and obtaining financial aid. Those who got perfunctory counseling are more likely to delay college and make questionable choices.

In One Degree of Separation, we examine how 26- to 34-year-olds, both those who go on to higher education and those who don't, see their economic prospects. Do they feel secure about their future? Do they think college or other postsecondary education has value? Do they feel overburdened by college debt? Can they succeed without a diploma?

REPORT 3: Quick Links

Report 1: With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them

Report 2: Can I Get A Little Advice Here?

Report 3: One Degree of Separation Test

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FINDING No 5: High school graduates have gaps in knowledge that could undercut their own ability to get a college degree in the future.

Despite their belief that they will find a way to earn a decent living without completing a college degree, nearly 4 in 10 high school graduates say they have given “a lot of thought” to going back to school. Another 3 in 10 have given it “some” thought. Yet most overestimate how quickly most students complete their degrees: 62 percent of all high school graduates are not sure or believe —incorrectly—that the “majority of undergraduates complete their degrees in four years.” Most college graduates knew this statement was false. Similarly, 62 percent of high school graduates are not sure or believe—incorrectly—that the majority of community college students graduate in two years. Many college grads weren’t sure about this either: 52 percent were not sure or gave an incorrect answer to this question.

One of the most startling and probably one of the most crucial gaps in knowledge concerned FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—which is the gateway paperwork to both federal and institutional financial aid. While nearly 7 in 10 college graduates were familiar enough with the term to know that it involved financial aid, fewer than 3 in 10 high school graduates recognized it. For many organizations working to expand access to college and increase college completion, making sure that young people complete the FAFSA is job number one. It’s the first step to getting a Pell Grant or federal loan, so students who don’t complete it miss out on that form of help. It is also used by colleges and universities to determine eligibility for institutional financial aid.

This is a significant gap in knowledge, but it may be one of the easiest to address. Some higher education specialists recommend, for example, tying FAFSA completion to getting a high school diploma. Just alerting guidance counselors, teachers, mentors, and those working in programs focused on improving college access and completion to the low levels of knowledge about the FAFSA could lead to a variety of helpful (and probably innovative) ways to address the problem.

REPORT 3: Quick Links

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One Degree of Separation Finding Five

FINDING No 5: High school graduates have gaps in knowledge that could undercut their own ability to get a college degree in the future.

Despite their belief that they will find a way to earn a decent living without completing a college degree, nearly 4 in 10 high school graduates say they have given “a lot of thought” to going back to school. Another 3 in 10 have given it “some” thought. Yet most overestimate how quickly most students complete their degrees: 62 percent of all high school graduates are not sure or believe —incorrectly—that the “majority of undergraduates complete their degrees in four years.” Most college graduates knew this statement was false. Similarly, 62 percent of high school graduates are not sure or believe—incorrectly—that the majority of community college students graduate in two years. Many college grads weren’t sure about this either: 52 percent were not sure or gave an incorrect answer to this question.

One of the most startling and probably one of the most crucial gaps in knowledge concerned FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—which is the gateway paperwork to both federal and institutional financial aid. While nearly 7 in 10 college graduates were familiar enough with the term to know that it involved financial aid, fewer than 3 in 10 high school graduates recognized it. For many organizations working to expand access to college and increase college completion, making sure that young people complete the FAFSA is job number one. It’s the first step to getting a Pell Grant or federal loan, so students who don’t complete it miss out on that form of help. It is also used by colleges and universities to determine eligibility for institutional financial aid.

This is a significant gap in knowledge, but it may be one of the easiest to address. Some higher education specialists recommend, for example, tying FAFSA completion to getting a high school diploma. Just alerting guidance counselors, teachers, mentors, and those working in programs focused on improving college access and completion to the low levels of knowledge about the FAFSA could lead to a variety of helpful (and probably innovative) ways to address the problem.