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College Search and Selection

Defining the College Selection Process, Influencing College Search, Selecting Students

The decision to attend a college or university and admission to an institution of higher education has important outcomes for individuals and for society. Most of the attention given to these decisions by researchers and by public policymakers has focused on how high school graduates (often referred to as traditional-age students) make their decisions. Attention has also been given to how the institutions make their decisions about the applicants they admit. There are many good reasons for the attention that has been given to these decision-making processes. It is clear that individuals, society, and colleges and universities benefit when more students choose to continue their formal education after high school. Economists have demonstrated that individuals who graduate from two-year and four-year colleges and universities typically have better jobs and incomes. College graduates are healthier and their quality of life is usually better. Society also benefits in a number of ways. Citizens with college degrees pay more taxes, vote more often, and contribute more to the civic life of a democratic society. Colleges and universities also benefit from students who enroll, namely, the contributions that students make to the intellectual and social life of each campus and the tuition dollars students and their parents pay to both public and private institutions. Public colleges and universities also benefit from the public funds that states provide to educate their citizens.

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s, there was a precipitous decline in the number of high school graduates. As a result, colleges and universities became more interested in understanding the factors that influence college choice. During the same time period, public policymakers focused more of their attention on encouraging lower-income and moderate-income high school graduates to pursue additional education after high school. These developments have stimulated a significant increase in the amount of research conducted on the college search and selection process.

Defining the College Selection Process

Since the 1980s the college selection process has become known as the student college choice, or the college choice process. The college choice process is complex and evolves over several years. During this longitudinal process individuals develop aspirations to attend a two-year or four-year college or university. After developing post–high school educational plans, individuals begin to gather information about the kinds of colleges or universities in which they might be interested, and finally they decide which institution to attend.

The college selection process for traditional-age students is often described as a three-stage process. The first stage is predisposition, which refers to the development of formal educational plans after high school. The second step is the search stage: the process of gathering information about colleges and universities as well as developing a list of colleges or universities to seriously consider. The final stage is called choice and refers to the final decision regarding which institution to attend.

Several researchers, such as Don Hossler and colleagues (1999), have devoted considerable attention to the college choice process. A number of factors and experiences can influence the predisposition stage of college choice. Most high school students have formulated their plans to continue their formal education after high school by the eighth or ninth grade. The most important factor that influences the decisions of students is extent to which parents consistently encourage their children to continue their formal education after high school. In addition, for children of parents who have attended college there is an increased likelihood of college or university attendance after high school graduation. High school students who earn better grades and who have friends who are planning to attend a college or university are also more likely to aspire to continue their formal education after they graduate. Finally, community norms and values also influence the development of postsecondary educational aspirations. Some communities value education more than others and these values are transmitted in subtle and complex ways to youth.

The search stage involves two simultaneous processes. One of these processes involves students learning more about the characteristics of different types of colleges and universities. The other part of this phase involves learning more about which specific institutions to seriously consider attending. Most students who are college bound enter the search stage during their junior year in high school. Some students start earlier and some wait until their senior year. This stage of the college decision-making process is complex. Not surprisingly, the students who spend more time investigating college options are more certain and confident about their deliberations during the search stage. Students from more affluent families and who earn better grades spend more time searching for college alternatives. It is also true, however, that students who earn better grades and who have parents who attended college are less certain about the kind of college or university they will eventually attend–more choices can create more uncertainty.

Most traditional-age students complete their choice stage during their senior year in high school. Typically seniors make their matriculation decisions in the spring or early summer. Making the final decision tends to bring a good deal more realism into the decision-making process. Students frequently drop more expensive, more distant, or more selective schools from their list. During the choice stage, peers and teachers, rather than parents, exert greater influence on the decisions of students. High school students who have consistently planned to attend college over long periods of time are more likely to follow through on their plans. Increased parental education, greater family income, and higher student grades increase the probabilities that high school graduates will attend colleges and universities that are more expensive, selective, and farther from home. Patricia McDonough's work on college choice also reveals that the norms and values of individual high schools influence the college destination of high school graduates. The attitudes and values of the faculty and other students within individual high schools can make a difference in determining the types of colleges and universities students are encouraged to consider. High school teachers and counselors can even help to channel students to specific colleges and universities. Informal and formal communication networks consisting of peers, teachers, counselors, and members of the local community influence which institutions are deemed to be good choices for graduates of individual high schools.

In addition, the marketing tactics of colleges and universities also have an influence on both the search and the choice stages. Colleges and universities that are more timely and personalized in all of their interactions with prospective students are more likely to exert a positive influence upon enrollment decisions.

Influencing College Search

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, public policymakers and college administrators have influenced the college choice process. Many public policymakers believe that the economic and political health and vitality of nations will be influenced by the number of its citizens who are well educated. The increasingly technological nature of many countries rests upon a foundation of well-educated citizens. In addition, public policymakers often measure the health of society by the extent to which all citizens, regardless of family background or ethnicity, have an equal opportunity to earn a college degree.

Irrespective of family background, parents can play an important role in the development of their children's plans for additional formal education after high school by providing consistent encouragement to their children over many years. Indeed, parental encouragement is one of the best predictors of college attendance. Parents exert another kind of influence on their children: More affluent parents view the college destinations of their children as an indicator of family status. For an increasing number of upper-middle-class and upper-class families, getting into a prestigious college has become an important outcome of the college choice process.

High schools can also play an important role in college choice. The kind of encouragement and college counseling provided in high schools has an impact upon student's decisions. High school teachers and counselors, as well as local community norms associated with issues like the value of higher education or the extent to which high school students are encouraged to leave the local area to attend a residential college or university can channel high school students toward or away from institutions of higher education as well as toward specific types of two-year and four-year colleges and universities.

State and federal governments can also play an important role in the college choice process. The amount of state revenue that is used to create and fund public colleges and universities influences college attendance rates in states. Generally, states with a higher concentration of colleges and universities have higher college attendance rates. In addition, lower tuition at public two-year and four-year institutions produces higher college attendance rates. The amount of state and federal financial aid programs also exerts an influence on college choice. Proportionately fewer state residents attend colleges and universities in states with smaller state financial aid programs.

It is also worth noting that the federal government, as well as several states and many local community groups, plays an increasingly important role in the college decision-making process. Federal and some state governments, in addition to local community foundations, have started programs to provide academic and personal support to encourage lower-income and moderate-income students to earn two-year and four-year college degrees. Programs ranging from the federally funded Gear Up program to the Twenty-First Century Scholar program in the state of Indiana to locally funded programs modeled after the Eugene Lang "I Have a Dream" program provide tutoring, social support, and financial aid to low-income students who focus upon academic goals, are admitted to one or more institutions of higher education, and enroll. These initiatives are attempting to expand educational opportunities for low-income youth.

The marketing, financial aid, and admissions policies of colleges and universities also influence the college choice process. Many four-year colleges and universities, both public and private, aggressively recruit students. They spend millions of dollars on publications, e-mail, CD-ROMs, and websites to attract and enroll students. Many campuses use financial aid, both need-based and merit-based, as tools to induce students to enroll. There is growing evidence that these tactics do influence which colleges and universities students consider and their final choice.

In 1999 Hossler, Jack Schmit, and Nick Vesper summarized the results of a nine-year longitudinal study of the college choice process and offered the following recommendations to families, educators, college enrollment professionals, and educational policymakers.

  1. Parents should provide consistent encouragement to their children to continue their education after high school.
  2. Parents should regularly ask questions about their children's plans, take them to visit campuses, and save for college.
  3. Teachers and counselors should link college planning with curricular choices students make as early as eighth or ninth grade.
  4. Teachers and counselors should plan group and/or individual college exploration and advising sessions for high school juniors.
  5. Teachers and counselors should plan financial aid information sessions for students and parents.
  6. Teachers and counselors should be well informed about postsecondary educational options so that they can offer good advice to their students.
  7. Educational policymakers should encourage academic support programs and fund early college awareness programs.
  8. Policymakers should try to constrain college costs.
  9. Admissions professionals should provide information to prospective students at the times they are ready to receive the information–not when their institutions are ready to send it.
  10. Most students are not ready for detailed information about postsecondary education until their junior year in high school.
  11. College choice is a complex, longitudinal process: Parents, peers, teachers, counselors, and admissions recruitment activities influence college choice. Also, the amount of financial aid students are offered can influence their enrollment decisions.

Selecting Students

There are a wide variety of criteria used to decide who will be admitted to a college or university. At highly selective institutions only a small percentage of all applicants who apply are admitted. In highly selective public institutions the admissions criteria are usually very clear because freedom of information laws require them to disclose their admissions criteria. The selection criteria at highly selective private institutions are often less well known to students and their parents. At universities that are highly selective, admissions decisions are strongly influenced either by the academic performance of students at the secondary level and/or scores on either the SAT or the ACT Assessment exam. In some instances a composite score that combines these two academic indicators is used. More selective institutions require higher grades and/or test scores. At the other end of the continuum are institutions such as community colleges that have virtually open admissions. Students who are admitted may not even have to be high school graduates to enroll. Institutions that fall between these highly selective institutions and open admissions institutions call for an array of admissions selection criteria. Performance at the secondary level and/or standardized test scores are used, but students would not have to have been outstanding or even necessarily strong students to be admitted to some four-year institutions. It is important to note that at many colleges and universities additional nonacademic factors are used as selection criteria. These additional criteria might include such factors as special talents (athletics, music, and leadership abilities) and factors like socioeconomic status or ethnicity.

Important Issues Related to College Search and Selection

Since the 1980s several important public policy issues have emerged that are related to college search and selection. These issues include affirmative action, the tension between excellence and equity, merit-based and need-based financial aid, and the impact of prestige rankings on college choice. The most contentious are related to equality of opportunity. A continual strand of debate has focused upon the role of higher education in promoting equality. Some policymakers and scholars have argued that higher education should primarily be concerned with merit and excellence. Others have articulated a strong role for equity and access for all citizens. The debates in this arena often focus on admissions selectivity, affirmative action, and the appropriate role of standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. Many institutions of higher education, as well as policymakers, educators, and families infer the quality of a college or university by the average of the standardized test scores of the enrolled undergraduate student body. Some ethnic minorities and many low-income students do not score as well on college admission standardized tests. For more selective colleges and universities that rely heavily on standardized tests to make admissions decisions, this means that fewer low-income and ethnic minority students will be admitted. This in turn leads to concerns about equal opportunity and access for students of all backgrounds. These issues are of special importance at public colleges and universities, where public funds are used to provide higher education for all citizens of the state.

In response, many institutions have developed affirmative action policies. These policies use locally developed standardized formulas that might include factors such as parental income, graduation from a secondary school with high concentrations of poverty (or low college attendance rates), or other more subjective criteria to make sure that all applicants have a more equal possibility of being admitted. In many states, however, legal challenges that dispute the legality of affirmative action policies have been mounted in state and federal courts. In Hopwood v. State of Texas (1996), the court decreed affirmative action admissions policies to be unconstitutional. In two legal opinions involving the University of Michigan, one judge ruled the affirmative action admissions policies used at the undergraduate level to be legal (Gratz and Hamacher v. Bollinger et al., 2001) and another judge ruled the affirmative action admissions policies used at the law school to be illegal (Grutter v. Bollinger et al., 2001). Thus far, the outcome of these legal battles over affirmative action is mixed and contradictory. A final legal resolution for affirmative action admissions policies is unlikely in the near future.

Since the early 1990s there has been a growing public focus on the status and quality of different colleges and universities. Publications such as U.S. News and World Report's America's Best Colleges have ranked the quality of colleges and universities in the United States. This focus may result in more social and economic stratification among colleges and among the students who enroll in them. Wealthy and well-educated parents are increasingly using rankings publications as reliable indicators of institutional quality and prestige. These parents and their children believe that the colleges or universities that the children attend will determine their future prospects for good paying jobs in high-status occupations. Although research on college outcomes does not support these beliefs, societal pressures continue to reinforce the belief among many prospective college students that institutional selectivity, prestige, and rankings will exert a pervasive impact on the jobs they can get and their lifetime income. In this context, McDonough and colleagues have noted that the search and choice stages of college choice involve a series of high-stakes decisions. Parental pressures from some wealthy parents accentuate these concerns.

Concerns about student enrollment and institutional prestige have also had an impact upon colleges and universities. In the 1970s and 1980s the number of traditional-age students declined. As a result some colleges had to compete aggressively to attract enough students to survive this downturn in the number of traditional high school graduates. One of the methods employed to successfully compete was to offer campus-based financial aid to induce students to enroll. Later, more campuses started to use financial aid offers to compete for top students in order to enhance their prestige. Not surprisingly, many prospective students have demonstrated that they are responsive to financial aid offers. If some students are offered enough financial aid they will choose one college over another. Such financial aid competition has altered the college choice process. Many traditional-age students, and their parents, have become accustomed to the idea that they should receive financial aid, even if their families are wealthy and can afford to pay the full costs of going to college. There is a growing sense on the part of all parents that some sort of financial aid is an entitlement. This places ever greater pressure on colleges and universities to offer merit-based financial aid to prospective students.

As colleges and universities have invested more and more money in merit-based financial aid, the amount of need-based financial aid available to low-income students has not kept up with rising costs of college attendance. As a result of these trends, financial aid trends have also become part of the debate about access, equity, and excellence. Some educators and public policymakers assert that students who earn good grades should be rewarded with scholarships. Others point out that more students from more affluent families are more likely to earn good grades and as a result get more scholarships, while lower-income students who lack many societal and educational advantages receive fewer scholarships. Critics of merit aid trends argue that these developments only accentuate inequities existing in American society.


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