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College Choice: It’s Anybody’s Guess

When the time comes to decide on a college, the factors at the forefront of a teenager’s mind will continue to remain impenetrable to even the most sophisticated empirical analyses, writes Austin Lyke.

March 22, 2017
 
 
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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.

Bio

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.

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