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The Areas Of Influence Of College Choice

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Within college choice models and theories, 10 significant factors of influence consistently come up in research that affects the college search process (Furukawa, 2011). These factors include family influence, peer influence, school counselors, rankings, institutional characteristics, selectivity, institutional fit, institutional communication, institutional actions, and additional influences.

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Family influence

Though college choice models look at the comprehensive influences affecting college choice, one emergent theme is family influence in the college process. Research confirms the vital role of family influence on college choice (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Litten, 1982; Hossler & Foley, 1995; Avery & Hoxby, 2004; McDonough, 1994; Perna, 2000; Stage & Hossler, 1989).

Litten (1982) found that while there are several influences in college choice, parental educational background was determined to be the most significant factor in shaping the nature of the college choice process for their children. Further research demonstrates that the educational level of the mother as being the most influential for student outcomes, level of higher education, and long-term career earnings (Carneiro, Meghir, & Parey, 2013).

The role of a collegiate alumnus status also plays a strong role in the college choice process. When a student has a “father or sibling who attended the college [will] greatly increase[s] a student’s own probability of attending” (Avery & Hoxby, 2004, p. 263). The relationship between family members and college choice decisions is a vital part of the predisposition phase in decision-making. The alumnus effect has a significant impact on the probability of matriculation, showing a 70 percent increase if a father attends, and a 90 percent increase if a sibling attends. This strong family alumnus effect may be due to the student’s familiarity with the college, traditions, and academics, but could also be a reflection of shared family values or allegiance (Avery & Hoxby, 2004).

Parental involvement throughout the student’s education can also help increase enrollment in higher education (Bouse and Hossler (1991). The earlier the involvement, the less likely the parent will feel like an outsider in the college choice process, and will help the student feel more at ease with their decision-making. Reynolds (1981) warns that universities need to be cognizant to cater towards parents as well, as the parent directly influences college choice. Thomas indicates that parents are concerned mostly with six key characteristics of the college their student will attend: “Campus safety, location, costs of college, area of interest or program area, campus size, and campus environment”.

In 1992, Flint surveyed over 350 parents of eighth graders, and found that there was more concern with college reputation than cost. Variety of majors, quality of majors, and admissions selectivity were deemed as factors relating to institutional reputation. The influence of family also varies slightly based on ethnicity. Nora (2004) states that there are varying family influences regarding the pursuit of higher education among minority students. Research demonstrates that Hispanic students, specifically, are influenced by their family and trusted networks (Ceja, 2006; Perez & McDonough, 2008).

Hispanic students from a lower socioeconomic status or Hispanic students with parents who did not attend college are found to be significantly disadvantaged compared to their non-Hispanic counterparts (Hossler & Gallagher, 1987). Perna (2000) confirmed parental education as an influence, and found that parent’s involvement in school activities beginning in Middle school directly related to whether their student will enroll in a four-year institution after graduation. Further, Stewart and Post (1990) found that minority students were more likely to enroll in institutions that are within a few hours radius of campus, and encourages institutions to focus recruitment in that geographic area.

Peer influence

While the evidence shows the clear influence of family, peer influence is also a consideration in college choice (Kelp Kern, 2000, Kealy & Rockel, 1987; McDonough, 1997). Kealy and Rockel (1987) discovered that “the student’s peer group of high school students is highly influential across all dimensions of perceived college quality (p. 689).” Additionally, McDonough (1997) depicted meaning making and ritual among peer groups in connection with their high schools and student organizations, and the effect that these specific peer groups on college choice.

In 2000, Kelpe Kern’s study showed that students tend to enroll in college because their peers are going to a college of similar type (2-year or 4-year) and prestige (open admissions or selective). A peer group can also influence a student’s belief regarding institutional quality or fit that can affect decision making from where to apply to where to matriculate (Kealy & Rockel, 1987; Kelpe Kern, 2000; Fletcher, 2012). Hossler, Braxton, and Coopersmith (1989) differ in their research, stating that while peers do have some influence on college choice, their influence varies drastically depended on the peer group. This difference could be interpreted by saying that while peers have an influence on a student’s perception of an institution, but only serve as one of many influences that comprise college choice.

School counselors

School counselors can also have a significant role in the college search process (Cabrera & LaNasa, 2000; Johnson & Stewart, 1991; Corwin, Venegas, Oliveraz, & Colyar, 2004; King, 1996). In 1996, King studied the role that high school counselors had with the college choice process; specifically looking at low-income students. Traditionally, low-income students and first-generation students are less likely to seek out four-year institutions in their initial college choice decision (Cabrera, 2014; Hoxby & Turner, 2015). King (1996) found that students who met with their school counselor more frequently were more likely to make plans to attend college. Johnson and Stewart (1991) analyzed a questionnaire of over 3,500 freshmen during their freshmen orientation.

This study examined the points at which the choice of college was first made and the final choice was made; what factors were considered in making a college choice; and what resources were used during this college choice. Johnson and Stewart found that when the college search process was initiated, school counselors were used more often than parents and teachers, making them a very important influencer when students gather information during the search stage of college choice. Research also demonstrates a link between the role of school counselors with the disparity in college enrollment among underrepresented groups of students (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Corwin et al., 2004). The disparity in college enrollment among Hispanic, African American, and Native American students is highly disproportionate in comparison to the number of students who began elementary school.

Cabrera & La Nasa (2000) found that socioeconomic status was the largest influence for underrepresented students to both finish high school and enroll in higher education. Beyond income levels, the disparity is attributed to a lack of adequate public school counseling, as well as counseling related specifically to financial aid and scholarship opportunities. These challenges have grown out of over-crowding in public schools, as well as a higher ration of students versus school counselors (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Corwin et al., 2004). Early access to information about college choice helps inform students as they make decisions during high school and help better prepare them for their future (Hooker & Brand, 2010).


Kim and Gassman (2011) show that college rankings can also be an influence in the college choice process for students and their family members. Monks and Ehrenberg (1999) show that many institutions use these rankings as selling points in guidebooks and on admissions websites. Of the 17 institutions in this study, institutional rankings both online and in print has an effect on how an institution may adjust tuition rates, scholarship models, or selectivity. While students and family members throughout the college search process often consider college rankings, educators are quick to point out the potential flaws in these ranking systems.

According to Espinosa, Crandall, and Tukibayeva (2014), “the measures used in rankings are nowhere near comprehensive and are often based on faulty data and assumptions, not to mention the misguided notion that a comprehensive measure of institutional quality is even possible”. However, Reback and Alter (2014) found that the number of applications received by a university is directly impacted by the changes in the annual rankings in U.S. News and World Report. This study found that the potential change in academic reputation and quality could have a significant effect on the number of applicants for the coming year.

College rankings can hit many demographic categories, including areas such as best value, student diversity, colleges that change lives, and alternative lifestyles. Dependent on the importance of these categories to students and their families, these rankings can inaccurately influence a students’ college choice without the benefit of further exploration or information that could come from institutional communication or actions.

Institutional characteristics

While institutional characteristics vary immensely among institutions, these characteristics are influencers throughout the college choice process (Brown, 2010; Hesel, 2004; Hoover, 2009, 2010; Kuh, 2009; Yost & Tucker, 1995; Magolda, 2000). Litten (1991) states that the great diversity of institutions with distinct characteristics is the reason why the college choice process is so complex. While institutional characteristics such as location, prestige, cost, size, diversity, college rankings, and admission rates, vary between each college, each of these individual characteristics may influence a student in making decisions about whether to apply or enroll in a specific institution.

In 1993, Hossler and Litten conducted a study and found two criteria were used to define a selective institution: admission rates and quality of applicants. One part of an institution’s charaterisitcs is the reputation that students have about the school. This study used focus groups to identify other characteristics that were important to students. These current students indicated interest in the “character of the community surrounding college; the diversity of the student body; the potential for faculty-student interaction; opportunities for student involvement in campus activities; issues of safety; curricular emphasis on pre-professional and professional programs; how many classes are taught by teaching assistants; and whether most classes are taught in seminar, laboratory or lecture formats”.

State public policies can also play a role in influencing college choice for those students considering public institutions. Perna and Titus (2004) looked at the relationship between state public policies and the type of institution that high school graduates attend. Using the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) from 1992-1994, they found that “state need-based financial aid and institutional financial aid promote student choice among different types of colleges and universities”.

This shows that a state public policy that supports financial assistance to students encourages the college choice decision of those students. When looking at institutional characteristics, it is important to also take into consideration those factors that the institution also has control over. Cost is a major influence on whether an institution is viewed as a viable option for a student and if it is affordable. Along those lines, institutional financial aid and scholarships are tied into this.

DesJardins, Ahlburg, and McCall (2006) tracked over 80,000 Iowa students through the application process and college enrollment over a five-year period. They followed multiple factors in the college choice process in order to isolate those variables that were most influential. They found that lower than expected financial aid packages had the strongest negative effect on enrollment at that particular institution. Avery and Hoxby (2004) share that the use of aid to reduce the overall sticker price of an institution is very common, but has also been shown to be a self-serving interest by the institution. Depending on the background of the student and their need for aid, total costs and scholarship packages will shape the affordability of an institution.


High-achieving students, when comparing institutional characteristics, will often look at not only institutional rankings, but also selectivity of the college (Furukawa, 2011; Hossler & Litten, 1993). While college rankings such as U.S. News & World Report may have many educational critics, institutions that are favorably viewed will often boast these rankings on guidebooks, admission materials, and websites, knowing how attractive they can be to prospective students (Kim & Gassman, 2011).

High-achieving students are often drawn to institutions that are known for selectivity and brand, and the more students that apply to these institutions, the more selective they can be, and the better the perception of academic quality and job placement for prospective students. The selectivity of these institutions influences the college choice for these high-achieving students. Highly selective institutions overall produce higher graduation rates and earning potential for their graduates (Carnevale & Rose, 2004; Wyner, Bridgeland, & DiIulio, 2007).

Carnevale & Rose (2004) showed that within the top 146 selective institutions, 90% of students will graduate within six years, compared to 70% at less selective institutions and 56% at non-selective institutions. These same selective institutions also out-perform less-selective institutions post-graduation, with higher graduate school placements (31% from selective institutions, compared to 21% overall) in addition to higher starting salaries upon graduation (Carnevale & Rose, 2004). The selectivity of an institution can be an important factor in college choice for more high-achieving students, as it directly ties to both perceived and real benefits of attending and then graduating from these institutions.

18 March 2020

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