How Students Decide Which College to Attend

After months—or even years—of dreaming of, planning for, and applying to college, the most difficult step in the entire process can be picking which college to attend. It’s one of the biggest decisions a student will ever make, so how do you ensure they make a great choice?

Of course, there’s no magical algorithm to determine which school is “perfect”, but students can take a look at what other students are basing their decisions on. Eduventures Research recently released their annual Survey of Admitted Students, which reveals the biggest factors behind eventual college enrollment choice for high school students:

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The survey covers all manners of data points from over 100,000 American high school students looking back on their decisions, but the results showed that there were definitely some common driving factors.

80% of students pointed to one of seven reasons behind their final decision: affordability, desired program, career outcomes, reputation/academic quality, value, proximity to home, and of course, that elusive “fit.”

So as a student is making their decision, it’s important to keep those seven “decision segments” in mind—and figure out which is most important.

A few key findings for students and families:

  • Among the 57 percent of survey participants attending schools in their home states, affordability was the leading factor (cited by 24 percent of those respondents), followed by the offer of a desired program (14 percent)
  • Students who chose based on affordability tend to acknowledge that alternative choices were as good or better based on quality, but prioritized cost; and students in the affordability segment, decisions are much more likely to be made with their families.
  • Students attending private schools, comprising 27 percent of respondents, were most likely to say that reputation or academic quality was their chief concern (cited by 17 percent of those respondents), followed by career outcomes (14 percent) and the offer of a desired program (13 percent)

Decision-making Information

Students in the survey pointed to various discussions they had and information they assessed in order to feel confident about their choices.

The survey indicated that 90 percent of prospective students find the one-on-one meetings at their schools, and other campus visits (89 percent), to be among the most useful sources of information during the college selection journey.

But in the end, the survey showed that conversations with family members was the biggest driving factor in both directions. 

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It makes sense for two reasons: (1) A student’s family knows the student better than anyone and can help suss out which school might be the best fit and (2) Affordability can be such a decisive factor, with a family’s finances playing a big role in which schools a family can afford.

Different Types of Schools

You won’t be surprised to hear that students based their decisions on different factors depending on the type of college they ultimately chose: in-state public, out-of-state public, or private institution. 

  • For students who chose in-state public schools, the top factor was affordability.
  • For students who chose out-of-state public schools, the top factors were reputation/academic quality and availability of desired program.
  • For students who chose private schools, the top factor was reputation/academic quality.

Side note: something we found interesting is that the “physical attractiveness of a school and its setting” tended to tip the balance more than most other factors, including learning more about student personalities and social life. Who can resist a nice palm tree?

As you think through your options, remember that each type of institution has its advantages, so you’ll need to think about what you value most and how that might affect which type of school you want to attend.