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.

Experiential Learning and Retention

About one in four college freshmen leave their school do not return for their sophomore year. So why, when faced with such a big problem, would I decide to talk instead about the importance of experiential learning in college at the Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience?


Because one of the big reasons why some students decide to drop out of college is that they don’t see how it is relevant in their lives in the twenty-first century.  If you are paying a lot of money (as well as taking on student loans) and also think you are not getting anything out of it, you might very well decide to focus elsewhere.


The number one reason why students go to college is to get a better job. If you don’t think college is going to do that, then you look elsewhere.  And there are more alternatives to college now than ever before with the proliferation of online learning in many forms (some free) and bootcamps such as General Assembly that provide immersive training in specific areas that is designed to get you that better job in less time and for less money than college.



Experiential learning programs can bridge that gap. Students with internships or coops are much more likely to see the relationship between what they are learning in school and what they are doing in the workplace. The research shows that these students also have greater gains both in college and after they graduate. They also have stronger ties to their alma mater after graduation.


Given the importance of helping students obtain internships and coops to retention, success in school and the future, as well as stronger alumni ties, you’d think that colleges and universities would be putting lots of support into this process. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.


It’s time that higher education leadership recognizes the importance of this work, especially as potential students move towards alternate pathways to the better job that they are so focused on.