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How Students Choose Their Colleges

Talking to students informally about the rationale behind their college choices, one gets a wide array of answers including finances, academics, and climate. The University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute has conducted a comprehensive survey of college freshmen for the past forty years which poses this question, among others, to students. The most recent survey conducted in the fall of 2010 incorporated 271, 441 freshmen from 393 institutions of higher learning. Results from this survey and a couple of lessons follow.

College Admissions Survey Results:

In the fall of 2010, 62.1 percent of student respondents to the UCLA survey agreed that “the current economic situation affected my college choice” somewhat or strongly. In the midst of the recent recession, according to the Chronicle of Education, one in six college bound students had to change their college plans. The academic reputation of an institution was cited by 62 percent of students in the UCLA survey as a major consideration in their college deliberations. It is unclear how students arrive at this judgment, particularly in light of the fact that only 16.7 percent of freshmen identified rankings in national magazines as a factor in their matriculation decisions. A belief that their chosen college would lead to good jobs was mentioned by 53.3 percent of freshmen, and financial assistance was identified as pivotal by 45.5 percent of students. Campus visits influenced the decisions of 41.8 percent of students, and the cost of attending college was treated as salient by 41 percent of them. A college’s reputation for social life influenced 39.5 percent of students, size was delineated by 38.7 percent of respondents, and the school’s proficiency in getting students into graduate and professional programs was identified by 32.2 percent of freshmen. Additional factors cited by students didn’t register beyond the teens in terms of support.

Lessons Learned:

A few lessons relate to the survey results.

First, academic reputation should be considered by students and their families as they evaluate their college options, but it is not in the eyes of the beholder. It largely corresponds to the academic rankings for national universities and liberal arts schools in US News and World Report’s (USNWR) annual “Best Colleges” issue. There is a strong relationship between an institution’s relative position in the national hierarchy and the resources available for financial assistance. Moreover, higher ranked schools generally do a better job than their lower ranked counterparts in placing students following graduation in jobs or desirable professional and graduate schools.

Second, students and their families are legitimately concerned about the availability of financial aid and college costs. Nonetheless, for a productive student experience they should also be conscious of faculty resources which affect class size and college financial resources that affect average spending per student on instruction and services. Both of these indicators of college quality can be found in USNWR.

Finally, the quality of programs within schools can vary and therefore students and their families are advised to visit campuses and set up appointments with departmental representatives of programs in which they are interested. Questions about class size, and post graduation job and graduate school placements can (and should) be raised at those meetings.


In this era of media reality shows, students display an understanding of contemporary American realities in their college deliberations. They are largely choosing their colleges for the right reasons, but can maximize their chances for success by tweaking the factors they take into account.


David Dickson is a college admissions counselor for Top Test Prep. This article discusses factors in how students select a college for matriculation.

To learn more about Top Test Prep’s admissions counseling and test prep programs, call (800) 501-Prep.

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