The Changing Influences on College Choice

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It is a common experience for those with high school age children to watch and agonize as the college admissions process unfolds. Typically, college bound students identify a “first choice” for admission and focus most of their energy on this college. And then the waiting game begins. Will they be admitted? Will their hopes and dreams be fulfilled?

But recent research indicates that while “first choice” institutions are still identified, fewer and fewer first year college students end up attending this college. In the end, it is becoming more of an issue of cost and available financial aid. So while prospective students know their preferred college, they often attend the institution they can best afford.

These findings and others are included in the recently released report of the CIRP Freshman Survey. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) has been administering this survey to new college freshmen annually for almost 50 years. This research is valuable not only because it is well done, but also because it provides one of the few longitudinal studies of freshmen behaviors, beliefs and values.

The most recent report reflects the responses of 165,743 first-time, full-time students who entered 234 four-year colleges and universities in the United States in Fall, 2013. The institutions that participated varied in size, type and selectivity.

The results provide a comprehensive picture of freshmen before they begin to take classes at their college. The sections of the report include the following areas:

  • Established behaviors in high school;
  • Academic preparedness;
  • Admissions decisions;
  • Expectations of college;
  • Interactions with peers and faculty;
  • Student values and goals;
  • Student demographic characteristics; and,
  • Concerns about financing college.

While I may return to these data in the coming weeks, I was particularly interested in the shifts in patterns related to the choice of college. Consistent with past years, “academic reputation” and “graduates’ job prospects” remain the top reasons influencing choice. But “cost” and “financial” aid have become far more important.

The result of this shift is that only 57 percent of the respondents enrolled at their first choice college, despite the fact that 76 percent had been admitted. This percentage of students attending their first choice college has dropped by 12 percent in the last decade. Over 60 percent reported that financial aid and the cost of college was paramount to their final decision. This is an even more important factor for first generation college students.

One of the impacts of this trend is that prospective students are applying to more institutions. In the last five years, for example, the percentage of prospective students applying to more than four colleges has increased by 10 percent.

When prospective students identify a “first choice,” it is typically because of a strong sense of fit. They fall in love with the campus, feel comfortable with the faculty and staff, relate well to the students, and are excited about a course of study and extra-curricular opportunities.

But today’s economic challenges have made the college choice more complicated. While there will always be 20-30% who are not admitted to their first choice, more and more will not be able to attend because another college is more affordable. This is a sad reality for both families and colleges.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Thursday, 31 July 2014