Rankings and other factors in US student choice, 1995 – 2012

I collected data from UCLA‘s Higher Education Research Institute‘s American Freshman Surveys (found here), and combined them all into one big spreadsheet (for download here – grey cells indicate data related to these questions were not collected for that year). 1995 is taken as the start year, as this was an exercise to look at the influence of university rankings (such as the US News & World Report, etc.) on how students make decisions about where to study, and 1995 was the first year in which information related to rankings was collected. This was done as part of my research work with Prof. Ellen Hazelkorn in Dublin Institute of Technology‘s Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU). This is intended to be indicative, rather than asserting any hard trends. I have accordingly allowed myself some flexibility.

Not all questions from the surveys were used, and not all questions were asked every year. For example, in 2002 and 2003 questions regarding the statements “This college’s graduates gain admission to top graduate/professional schools” and “This college’s graduates get good jobs” were not asked. “Information from a website” is a question that was first asked in 2000. The full list of questions is here:

“The following reasons were “Very Important” in deciding to go to this particular college:

  1. My parents wanted me to come here
  2. My relatives wanted me to come here
  3. My teacher advised me
  4. This college has a very good academic reputation
  5. This college has a good reputation for its social activities
  6. I was offered financial assistance
  7. The cost of attending this college
  8. High school counselor advised me
  9. Private college counselor advised me
  10. I wanted to live near home
  11. Not offered aid by first choice
  12. Could not afford first choice
  13. This college’s graduates gain admission to top
  14. graduate/professional schools
  15. This college’s graduates get good jobs
  16. I was attracted by the religious affiliation/orientation of this college
  17. I wanted to go to a school about the size of this college
  18. Rankings in national magazines
  19. Information from a website
  20. I was admitted through an Early Action or Early Decision
  21. program
  22. The athletic department recruited me
  23. A visit to this campus
  24. Ability to take online courses
  25. The percentage of students that graduate from this college

There are various ways to break down and group these questions, and one such approach might be to consider what exactly is the nature of the issue informing student choice:

(1) INPUT: Is it an “input” such as being offered financial aid, or some other inducement (Questions 6, 19, 20)
(2) INHERENT: or is it something inherent to the university, but something that is not readily changed such as size and location (7, 10, 15, 16)
(3) OUTPUT: the results students achieve in terms of career etc. (13, 14, 23)
(4) REPUTATION/INFORMATION:, or is it that the prospective has (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 17, 18)
(5) OTHER: Negative factors, other (11, 12, 21)

In a somewhat arbitrary manner, I dropped a few questions (1, 3, 9, etc.), and the result was this:

New Picture (1)

Which is rather unwieldy, but still interesting. What interested me most of all were questions related to reputation and sources of information. How were students making decisions related to attending a specific institution, and not just entering a higher level education in general. I grouped these together, culled a few more questions, and Excel spat out the following graph:

Reputation largeThis gets us closer to something we can interact with. Clearly “Good Academic Reputation” is the most important factor in student choice, with social reputation following. This appears to militate somewhat against the other factors that are at the lower end of the scale (such as rankings, websites). This deserves to be interrogated further however, as there is some circularity here. How is academic reputation established and disseminated? Do these students have access to test scores? What is their source of information for academic reputation, which remains (as the first graph clearly illustrates) the most important single factor in student choice.

This is why in my fourth group of questions I noted there is 4(i) Reputation and 4(ii) Sources of information. There is undoubtedly cross-over, but if we isolate out a few (for instance, I dropped “Relatives wanted me to come here” as it partakes of both (i) and (ii)) of the questions pertaining to 4(ii), we get the following:

ReputationNote now that I have selected data for every second year and 2012. This gives us a somewhat clearer trend. If we take the 1995 figures as our baseline, the increase for rankings (an information source) compared to other factors (such as academic reputation) is telling.

rankings table

Of course rankings have more room for growth, and academic reputation cannot increase beyond 100% as an influencing factor in student choice. Nevertheless, it demonstrates a new and significant presence in the higher education landscape.

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