What Top Applicants Want

Students draw on a host of factors to make a college decision, and they might not be in the order you think.
April 10, 2006

Mother knows better than U.S. News & World Report, according to a survey of top high school students being released today.

A survey of 600 students who scored over 1100 on the SAT, half of whom scored at least 1300, found that campus visits, parents -- moms more than dads -- word of mouth, and college Web sites are more influential information sources for college-bound students than rankings, guidance counselors, and teachers.

The report, conducted by Lipman Hearne, a marketing firm with many colleges as clients, found that the single most important factor for high-fliers in deciding where to apply was the presence of a particular program of study. About a quarter of all the students surveyed listed “a specific program of study” as the most important influence.

Both the 1300-plus group -- “academic superstars,” according to the report – and the 1100-1290 set -- “solid performers” -- said that proximity to home was more important than “college reputation,” and affordability.

Twenty-six percent of the solid performers, as opposed to 16 percent of the superstars, listed “near home” as the most important quality of institutions they applied to. Twenty-eight percent of non-white students, as opposed to 20 percent of white students, listed “near home” as the top factor in deciding where to apply. Those results, however, were not statistically significant, partly because of the small number (108) of non-white students.

Differences between the superstars and solid performers emerged in several other parts of the survey. The solid performers responded as more career oriented. On a five-point scale of agreement, the solid performers gave “college is really about preparing for a career” a 4.2, a small but statistically significant difference from the 4.0 superstars gave it.

Ninety percent of superstars and 82 percent solid performers said that an “academically rigorous environment” played a role in their application decision, and 66 percent of solid performers, as compared to 55 percent of superstars, said that sticker price played a role. A high U.S. News & World Report Ranking was among the less common considered traits, with 50 percent of superstars and 41 percent of solid performers taking it into account. Only 20 percent of all the students said that the ability to play a sport factored in, and 17 percent -- lowest other than the importance of having famous alumni -- thought about the party scene.

In some parts of the survey, men were from Mars, and women were somewhere out by Saturn. Twelve percent of superstar men, as compared to 26 percent of superstar women, surveyed said that the religious affiliation of a college was important in their decision to apply. Only 5 percent of male superstars from the Northeast factored in religion. Seventeen percent of both non-Northeast, male superstars and Northeast female superstars considered religion. Of all the groups surveyed, superstar women from outside the Northeast -- 33 percent of them -- factored in religion the most. Among solid performers, the religion numbers were lower in the Northeast than elsewhere, and nearly identical for men and women. Donna Van De Water, director of research at Lipman Hearne, said that “we know that particularly first generation immigrant parents have a real reluctance to let their daughters go far, and they’re looking for a place that will respect their values. And religious institutions do a good job of communicating that.”

When it came to U.S. News rankings, superstar women in the Northeast -- 61 percent of those surveyed -- turned to them most. Students in the Midwest, only a quarter of them, turned to U.S. News the least. Rankings on the whole were only considered by 34 percent of the students, with teachers, family members other than parents, and guidance counselors at 36, 37, and 38 percent respectively. Dad’s input was weighed a bit more heavily, as 49 percent of the students considered, but friends were more important – 52 percent – and mom even trumped the college Web site by 1 percent, with 55 percent of students considering her advice. Input from a student at the college – important to 59 percent of the students -- was the second most used source, and campus visits influenced 74 percent of students.

Though 74 percent of the students said that a campus visit, which often facilitates contact with current students, played a role in their decision to apply – more than any other factor – it apparently wasn’t so they could pick between gothic or neo-classical. Only 6 percent listed “nice campus” – the least of the options – as the most influential trait. White pillars and sprawling quads may have helped, but just under half of students said that a “traditional looking” campus played any role at all in their decision to apply.

Even among the high-achieving students, 8 percent applied only to associate’s degree granting institutions. Van De Water recalled a national merit scholar she spoke with who shed some light on why a top student would apply only to their community college.  The student, who already planned to be a speech pathologist, was offered a full scholarship to the honors program at her local community college. “She was already thinking about grad school,” Van De Water said, “so she was already thinking about cost.” 

On the whole, cost concerns were not significantly different among the students surveyed. Fifty-nine percent of white students reported needing financial aid, compared to 67 percent of non-white students.

The solid performers also placed more importance than the superstars on being among the top students wherever they went. Tom Abrahamson, a managing director and principal at Lipman Hearne, and former dean of admissions at DePaul University, said that some students expressed the feeling that they wanted to go somewhere where “they don’t feel like they have to carry the conversation all the time. It might be a weight lifted off them.” He said that the solid performers “were more in the shadow” and more likely to think “I’m a really bright student, but I didn’t get my chance to shine.”

Van De Water said she wished students wouldn't make their decisions based on a single factor, like projected income for a major at a particular institution. She said that some institutions are encouraging students to come in undeclared and explore. Abrahamson added, however, that the farther a student is geographically from an institution, the more the institution might want to market a particular program. “That’s anathema to many colleges' desires,” he said. “They want to present the overall experience.”

Other interesting findings included that minority men felt that prominent alumni, research opportunities with faculty members, and graduate school placement rates were much more important than their white counterparts. Black women were much more interested than white women in extracurricular activities, close contact with faculty members, and their parents’ opinion. And, for no obvious reason, students from the South were much more likely to apply early than other students. “That one’s a mystery to me,” Van De Water said.


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