Graduating Seniors in the Class of 2019 Share Their Thoughts on College, Finances, and Careers

The College Board conducted a survey of 110,000 graduating seniors in the class of 2019, our fourth annual and largest survey yet, to gain insight into students’ preparations for college, the application process, financial aid, and career planning.

Most of the students surveyed cited navigating the financial aid process and the cost of college as big concerns during their senior year of high school.

“Do start looking for scholarships as early as freshman year to alleviate stress over financial aid in senior year,” Vanessa, a student from Texas, recommended.

Paying for College

Most graduating students are concerned about paying for college. Approximately 80% of graduating senior respondents said the biggest challenges facing college students are the cost of college tuition and student loan debt. Sixty-one percent of students cited the cost of college materials (e.g. books) as another challenge for students.

Just over one-third of graduating senior respondents did not apply for any scholarships, and just over one-third applied for more than three scholarships. For the students who didn’t apply for scholarships, the most common reasons for not doing so were lack of time, lack of information about the scholarship process, or financial assistance not needed.

“It’s confusing,” Axel, a student in Arizona, said about scholarship applications. “Most students my age have a hard time looking for scholarships, and when they do find them, they can’t even apply to them since it requires a lot of things that the students can’t accomplish.”

Starting with the class of 2020, the College Board Opportunity Scholarships Program lays out six simple steps all students can take to get to college. All students can earn one of these scholarships – completing each step will earn a chance for a scholarship; doing all six steps will earn students a chance for $40,000 for their college education.

Among the students surveyed, 40% of graduating senior respondents are planning to take out loans to help pay for college, and another third are not sure if they will take out loans or not. In a separate question, close to 90% of graduating senior respondents reported being very or somewhat concerned about going into debt after college.

“I hope all of this is worth the tremendous amount of debt I am taking on,” said Estefania, from Florida. “It is astonishing how many loans I must take out to get a degree.”

High School

Students spent time preparing for college entrance exams. Of the 72% of students who practiced for the SAT, 61% used free Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy, up from 54% in 2018. Students also used other methods to prepare for the SAT: 45% said they practiced with books, 32% said in school with a teacher or counselor; 12% with an in-person tutor; 10% from an in-person course with a company; 7% with an online course with a company.

“Study for the SAT early and utilize as many free online resources as possible,” Vera, a student in New Mexico, advised. “I recommend Khan Academy because all of its material is closest to what you will see on official tests, and it offers customized test prep and schedule planning.”

We asked students about the main things that caused them stress during high school. The top four sources of stress were 1) college planning; 2) doing well in school; 3) mental health concerns; and 4) finances. Other than school-related sources, students were stressed about their family lives, social lives, and physical health.

Some students also chose coursework with college finances in mind. Among respondents who took AP, 72% said that the potential to save money in college had a strong or moderate impact on their decision to do so.

“Take AP classes that interest you because it really can help you save money in college,” said Rachel, a student in Virginia.

“Taking college classes in high school is a great idea,” said Kay, a student in Illinois. I’ve taken six AP classes, and assuming I can pass my three exams this year, I’ll be getting out of most of my gen eds in college.”

For the third straight year, over half of graduating seniors said that teachers sometimes or frequently assign students higher grades than they deserve.

Applying to College

Among students who planned to attend a 4-year college, the average number of schools they reported applying to was six. Two percent of students had a longer list, applying to 20 or more colleges/universities.

Close to 60% of the graduating seniors surveyed said that figuring out how to get financial aid or scholarships was the hardest part of the college application process. In addition to finances, 44% of students said keeping track of deadlines was the most difficult part, 43% said writing the college application essay, 39% said taking the SAT/ACT, 39% said deciding which college to attend, and 12% said getting recommendations.

Career Planning

The class of 2019 wants to major in subjects they are passionate about. Over two-thirds of graduating senior respondents who have an idea of their major said that passion for the subject is the main reason they want to major in that field. The remainder of students surveyed indicated their reasons for their intended major were job opportunities (14%), earning potential (7%), prior academic success (4%), or a family member with experience in the field (4%).

The most popular intended majors reported by graduating senior respondents are biological and biomedical sciences; business, management, and marketing; health professions and related clinical sciences; engineering; psychology; other majors not listed (including but not limited to accounting, nursing, animation, political science, art history, criminal justice, game design, animal/veterinary sciences); and computer and information sciences.

Regarding beginning their careers, just under 20% of graduating senior respondents report being certain about the steps they need to take to successfully begin their future career, 48% are pretty sure; 28% are not too sure; and 6% are not sure at all.

Note on methodology: In April-May of 2019, the College Board surveyed all opted-in students in the class of 2019 who participated in a College Board program or assessment during their time in high school—110,000 students completed the survey. Data were weighted to reflect the high school senior population in terms of gender, geography, AP® Exam taking, and household income. The College Board reached almost 90% of the graduating class through our programs and assessments. The Communications team partnered with the Survey Research Team in the LEvR division to share the results with Seventeen Magazine.