college rankings

What Influences College Choice?

Choosing a college involves many factors, such as cost, location, and the academic reputation of the institution. Increasingly important to people going to college for the first time, however, is the college visit. According to the newly released 2017 CIRP Freshman Survey results, 47.3% of students who entered college in the fall of 2017 indicated that the campus visit was very important in their decision about where to go. Although not the reason given by the most students (that the college had a very good academic reputation, at 65.6%), the college visit shows an increasing importance, rising from 37.6% just 15 years ago.

What is it about the college visit that makes it so important to almost half of college freshmen? Research by Longmire and Company indicates two factors: getting a “feel” for the campus, and how welcoming and friendly the current students seem.

Prospective students look for a college that seems to be a good fit for them.

In addition to being important in college choice, the importance of the college visit and this concept of “fit” is connected to retention. Research I conducted when directing the CIRP survey program indicated that students who placed high importance on the campus visit were also more likely to return to that college for the sophomore year.

Given that close to 1 in 4 students do not return for their sophomore year, the importance of determining a fit between the applicant and the college is paramount. Admissions materials that portray a glossy and idealized campus life might get students in, but if after attending the promises turn out to be hollow then we should not be surprised that some students do not return. Especially with college costs as high as they are.

What else do incoming students consider? First and foremost, as we found for years at CIRP, students go to college to be able to get a better job than they otherwise might (84.9%) and 55.7% of students choose their college because they believe that graduates from that school get good jobs.

This is not to say that this is all that is important: 83.6% also report that they are going to college in order to learn more about things that interest them.

What is not important? College rankings. For many years, 2017 included, few (17.9%) students tell us that this was important in their choice of where to go.

Expectations of college are high. Students more and more want to get that better job, to learn more about things that interest them, and to get into good graduate schools. Higher education needs to be aware of these expectations and, especially given the high costs of college and the increasing student debt loads, be able to demonstrate that they are meeting these expectations. Our student deserve no less.

More On College Rankings

In today's Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni has excellent advice for how one should use (and not use) college rankings.  

There are two schools of thought on rankings.  Those of us who have looked into how they are created are usually siding with Mr. Bruni: that 1) the premise is flawed to begin with and 2) no one ranking is going to be definitive for all prospective students.

I've written previously on how a multirank system that could be customized by the user would be a better system that the static rankings we have now.  There are a wide variety of rankings that all decide for the user what is important for them to look for in a college.  Having had two children go through the college search process, I can attest that there is no one size fits all.  As Mr. Bruni suggests, if one has to use rankings, then use several to illustrate different sides of a school.  For instance, if community service is of interest, use the Washington Monthly rankings to get an idea of some of the schools that foster such interests.

But, as I am also on record pointing out, the rankings aren't really used as much by prospective students, but more often by college presidents, trustees, and alumni.  The people creating the rankings know this, and some are not geared towards prospective students.

So refer to rankings if you need to.  But also do your own homework.  Rankings are like the old Cliffs Notes that would summarize plots of books for those students who didn't have the time or inclination to read the whole book.  You can get the gist of what happened, but you miss the nuances in the prose of what distinguishes a good book from a great book.  And don't we all want that great book?