Admissions / registrar

The irrationality of college choice (essay)

I prefer the spires of Yale University to the gates of Harvard University. And I’ll always dislike Clemson University because I wasn’t admitted there as a high school senior in 2008. Relatedly, as a native Texan, my sentiments on the debate between the merits of the University of Texas at Austin versus Texas A&M carry extra weight with my students, despite being grounded in the relative nightlife of Austin to College Station rather than academics or student life.

Those and many more seemingly irrational opinions about colleges and universities influenced my role as an adviser with the University of Georgia chapter of the College Advising Corps from 2013 to 2015.

Likewise, some of my advisees at North Atlanta High School heard that the dining hall food was better at Georgia State University than at Kennesaw State University, so they spurned the suburbs for downtown Atlanta. They liked Ole Miss because it offers a quintessential Southeastern Conference college experience, and to be honest, it’s hard to refute that particular claim.

For each student who measured generous merit-aid packages against the U.S. News & World Report taxonomy, a classmate chose an out-of-state private comprehensive with a fancy-sounding name and a mediocre academic reputation. Similarly, degree options and cost of attendance at institutions with perennially ranked football and basketball teams were often overlooked by prospective applicants -- although keenly, many students with Ivy League credentials enrolled at in-state flagships. In the end, guiding the college-choice process of nearly 600 17- and 18-year-olds over a two-year period was more Ouija than Monopoly. If a student entered my office in pursuit of perfect information, the game board was inevitably flipped in the air by the time they left.

Although I didn’t know it prior to entering graduate school, Patricia McDonough’s 1997 study Choosing Colleges offers empirical backing for this anecdotal experience. In it, she deduces from a series of qualitative findings that the college choice process is not “the economist’s rational choice model … nor … a policy maker’s model of informed consumer choice.” Rather, it is a teenager’s “spur of the moment” decision.

In contrast, a recent report from the Urban Institute’s Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg details in finely tuned econometric argot the “choice deserts” faced by rural college aspirants. For those aspirants, the authors argue, “true informed choice” is elusive due to unrepresentative earnings data as reported by the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.

While looking at a golf ball presented to me by an admissions representative from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I posed a question on Twitter to Seton Hall higher education professor Robert Kelchen, who had shared a Wall Street Journal blog post on the report: “What evidence is there that students actually use earnings data?” Kelchen directed me to a working paper from Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith that uses the introduction of the online College Scorecard tool in September 2015 as a predictor of SAT score-sending behavior to inform conclusions about the causal effect of earnings data on college choice.

Technical points aside, I cannot help but think what would have happened had a student walked into my office and asked about earnings data from Yale and Harvard. Although the College Scorecard reports Harvard graduates’ average salary after attending to be more than $20,000 higher than that of graduating Yalies, an advisee of mine would also be factoring in architectural history and proximity to Italian bakeries and pizza in New Haven. Neoclassical economic approaches to college choice duly provide evidence for certain behaviors under a wide swath of theoretically and empirically debatable assumptions. But they’re most notably missing what one might call, continuing the Yale theme, neo-Gothic variables: peculiar atmospheric factors like the ethereal bellow of clock tower chimes on a foggy autumn morning or the dulled fluorescence of cloistered library stacks.

Such factors, noted Burton R. Clark, the late professor emeritus of higher education and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, are components of collective belief in an institution’s organizational saga. The idea of choice deserts then ostensibly applies to many of my former advisees at a public urban high school surrounded by dozens colleges and universities -- students whose access to the equally important subjective aspects of a campus was often limited to posters in my office that featured names of colonial patrons in elegant serif fonts amid a semicircle of foliage-drenched Adirondack chairs.

To test a hypothesis of the significance of noneconomic variables in the choice process, an unscientific experiment could go something like this: provide a golf ball embossed with the logo of the University of St. Andrews, 4,000 miles from Atlanta, along with the earnings data from institutions within a 25-mile radius of the I-285 perimeter near the city. Ask college-aspiring North Atlanta High School students to rate each institution based on their interest in attending.

As St. Andrews shares the name of one of the most famous sports venues on earth and bears a shield fit for a feudal lord, I imagine that many capricious high school students would evaluate it relatively favorably next to a list of eventual five-figure salaries. And when the time comes to decide on a college, what exactly will have transpired that makes the decision any more or less rational?

All that is to say that, barring unassailable neurophysiological evidence, factors at the forefront of the mind of the college-choosing teenager will continue to remain impenetrable to even the most sophisticated empirical analyses. To that end -- whether a counselor preaching to a high school auditorium or a researcher grappling with opaque elements of demography and human geography -- simple consideration of the social and structural quirks that make college choice such an enigmatic process seems apt for ensuring the most effective postsecondary access policies and practices for those in the government, academic and nonprofit sectors.

Austin Lyke is a graduate student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. He was a college adviser with the Georgia College Advising Corps from 2013 to 2015.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 

Common Application announces it will keep questions on criminal background and disciplinary history


Common Application will keep questions some have urged it to drop, but says it will add more information and context to the process.

Harvard law announces it will accept GRE, not just LSAT


Move could change the debate in legal education about alternatives to the LSAT.

How to increase admissions in today's difficult environment (essay)

Back in 2001, I worked in the New York University admissions office. We were very well positioned to have a terrific incoming class.

Then Sept. 11 happened.

I remember huddling with my colleagues, time and time again, trying to work our way through this unprecedented, impossibly challenging year with fewer applications and distraught, distracted applicants.

All of our projections, plans and benchmarks were thrown into disarray.

The uncertainty of the aftermath of Sept. 11 vexed us all fall. How could we chart a new course when one day our troops were being deployed and the next we had anthrax peppering the desks of journalists just up the road from our campus?

But as winter turned to spring, the world seemed to settle down a bit, and we were able to get students focused on filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms and visiting our campus. We landed our class that year, but my colleagues and I were well aware that, had Sept. 11 been April 11, we never would have been successful.

Fast forward 16 years: now, as a managing director of Royall & Company, my conversations with enrollment leaders these past months have reminded me of that long fall of 2001. Our campus partners are filled with concerns about their enrollment and revenue projections, and yet many are also confounded by the unpredictability of what might happen tomorrow.

Two major themes have emerged this year. First, early FAFSA activity has changed students’ behavior and has made forecasting enrollment outcomes extremely difficult. Second, the political world has many confronting potential losses of revenue from international students and changes to federal student aid.

Let’s take a look at those challenges and potential shortfalls and consider a few tactics that could help those of you involved in college and university admissions to mitigate them.

Forecasting Enrollment Outcomes

Ever since the FAFSA filing window widened, the volume of activity has surpassed most enrollment professionals’ estimations. Because filing a FAFSA has traditionally been a strong indicator of student intent, this year’s activity is difficult to read. Some colleges and universities exceeded their final FAFSA volumes before Jan. 1, while others are seeing comparable activity to last year.

What to make of this? It’s really hard to tell. One thing is certain -- you will need to think carefully about how much weight you’re ascribing to the FAFSA in your predictions this year. Other factors, such as campus visits and your track record with a student’s high school, are likely to be more stable indicators this year and perhaps worthy of additional weight.

International Students

On just about every campus, international students bring more revenue per person than traditional domestic students. With growing evidence that international students are less willing -- and, crucially, less able in the wake of the new administration’s policies -- to travel to the United States, enrollment teams will have to work creatively to replace their lost revenue.

Whether international students make up 2 percent or 10 percent of your class, you’ll need to add more than one domestic student for each international student you think might not show up at freshman orientation, given the revenue differential. And you should probably also factor in some retention challenges, too. Some Royall & Company partner institutions have expressed concerns that current international students may choose to depart because of potential limitations on travel or fears triggered by the changing tenor of American political rhetoric. And some paranoia on this front is certainly warranted.

Federal Aid Support

My colleagues on campuses are asking important -- and alarming -- questions: What would be the budget or retention impact of a $1,000 cut in the top Pell Grant? What would happen if Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants went away? What if the interest subsidy on student loans disappears?

We already know that even students with a grade point average above 3.0 who lose $1,000 to $1,500 in financial aid are 2.5 percent more likely to drop out of college than their peers who have little or no change in aid.

In the past, we might never have imagined a world where all of this could happen quickly. But we’re in a different climate today. Higher education’s budget is large; it is an easy target for cost-containment conversations in Washington. If you haven’t started thinking about a contingency plan on your campus, you should do so right away. Confront your toughest question: What additional enrollment revenues would you need to offset these potentialities?

What to Do?

We cannot predict when -- if ever -- enrollment teams will regain traction on solid, familiar ground.

In the interim, however, here are a few established strategies that can help you find your students and meet your enrollment and revenue goals even in this unpredictable time.

Build your bandwidth. Let me assure you that it’s not too late to grow your applicant pool. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that late engagement of high school seniors (even into March and April) is possible. Scour your FAFSA applications for potential stealth applicants -- students who don’t show up in a college’s inquiry pool -- and proactively prod them to apply with simple, well-timed messages. And remember that transfer students from community colleges are an often undertapped population of late applicants.

Research by our parent company, EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board), a best-practices firm working with more than 1,100 educational institutions, indicates that transfer students are less expensive to recruit and enroll at 10 to 20 percent higher tuition rates, because most colleges allocate more of their tuition discounting funds for first-year students. Transfer students are also 5 to 20 percent more likely to graduate than students recruited directly out of high school.

Persist. According to Royall & Company testing, 32 percent of all deposits come from students who respond after your fifth message. So don’t worry about annoying students. If they aren’t interested, they’ll let you know. The ones that you’re not hearing back from might be just as preoccupied with the changing dynamics in Washington and across the globe as you are. Keep at it. Target the students who started but did not complete their applications. Strategic text message nudges that prodded noncompleters to finish either their Common Application or an institution’s custom application increased response rates by 63 percent -- a boost that carried through to the admission stage.

And always keep students at the center of your messages. Royall & Company tests show student-focused messaging can result in a 50 percent increase in response rate over institution-centered copy. Student-centered copy, for example, would tell prospective students that they can be the architect of their own education, as opposed to talking about the institution’s flexible curriculum.

Engage parents. Don’t forget about the parents of your prospective students. In Royall & Company surveys, parents consistently emerge as the most influential figures in students’ college decision making, significantly more so than high school and college counselors. Our research shows that students who provide a parent’s email address to a college or university during the recruitment phase are 52 percent more likely to apply to the institution. Parents can also be your best partner in driving the activity you most care about. Our tests show that parents have a four times higher response rate to FAFSA communications than students.

But don’t just ask students to involve their parents. Think about a parent recruitment strategy that reaches out to prospective parents directly. Enlist some of your current students’ parents to call or host informational meetings for the parents of prospective students. You will most likely find that parents are eager to help you and will welcome the positive, hopeful vision of their child’s future that is the consistent core of every institution’s mission.

Faced with new levels and kinds of enrollment risk, I encourage admissions teams to seek out these and other tested, effective enrollment strategies. A focus on data and research helped my colleagues and me in 2001, and I believe it can also help institutions in 2017 and beyond.

What’s more: I believe higher education is in a better spot now. The situation in 2001 was thankfully fairly limited. But today there are thousands of institutions coping with ambiguities we’ve not seen, nor could anticipate, before. As a result, there are many lessons to be learned from across institutions, and I am constantly surprised by how many colleges and universities are willing to share what works, with us and with one another. No institution should feel the need to go it alone.

Peter Farrell is a managing director at Royall & Company, a division of EAB focused on data-enabled enrollment management.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 

College Board pilots new way to measure adversity when considering applications, but some fear impact of leaving out race

College Board pilots system to help colleges make admissions decisions about who is disadvantaged -- and evidence from one college suggests 20 percent of decisions might be different. But lack of emphasis on race concerns some advocates.


Date Announced: 
Thu, 02/09/2017

CALEM 2017

Wed, 04/05/2017 to Fri, 04/07/2017


321 17th Street
Denver , Colorado 80202
United States


Subscribe to RSS - Admissions / registrar
Back to Top