What High School Students Say They Seek in a College

Academic matters come first, but financial issues aren't far behind, federal data show. And location matters.

November 19, 2018

When high school students consider the factors that matter to them in selecting a college, academics come first, but financial questions aren't far behind. And the evidence from other surveys suggests that location matters for most, boosting choices that are close to home.

Those are key findings from a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics, based on a survey in 2012 of 23,000 high school students, most of them in the 11th grade. The three factors with the highest percentages of "very important" ratings were academic quality/reputation (74 percent), having a desired program of study (74 percent) and job placement (73 percent). Cost of attendance was close behind.

NCES broke down the data on the factor of cost of attendance. As might be expected, it was more important to low-income students, but it was important to all students. In the lowest socioeconomic quintile, 73 percent said that cost was "very important," while 70 percent in the middle quintile said so and 56 percent in the highest quintile shared that view.

Even if cost is not the top factor high school students consider, there is substantial evidence that it can come into play later in the process, when students are picking a college among those to which they have won admission.

A survey released last year by Royall & Co., the enrollment-management arm of EAB, found that the top reason cited by students who opted not to attend what had been their first-choice college was cost of attendance. Just under 19 percent of those who didn't attend their first-choice college cited cost, and nearly 40 percent cited issues related to cost.

The new NCES data also point to the importance of location, with nearly three-quarters of students saying that being close to home is somewhat or very important. More than twice as many students said being close to home was very important than said being far from home was very important (26 percent versus 12 percent).

Data from the Freshman Survey of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggest that location is a key factor, indicating that many students may be applying other factors (academic quality or desired program of study) within a geographic radius of the home where they grew up (at least for traditional-age college students).

Only 18 percent of first-year students at four-year colleges are enrolled at colleges more than 500 miles from home.

In contrast, 38 percent of freshmen are enrolled at an institution within 50 miles of their permanent residence, including 13 percent attending college within 10 miles of their permanent homes.


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