Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

MYTH No. 3: Most students go through a meticulous process of choosing their college from an array of alternatives.

REALITY No. 3: Among students who don’t graduate, the college selection process is far more limited and often seems happenstance and uninformed.

In recent years, the media have been awash with “can you believe it?” stories about the college selection and application process and the stress it engenders in affluent families. According to the coverage, families are organizing summer vacations around visiting colleges. High school students are filling out dozens of applications, sometimes with a “coach” whose job it is to help them present themselves at their best. A cottage industry of publications, Web sites and experts offers advice on selecting the right college and getting into it.

But according to this survey, many young Americans—and especially those who fail to get a diploma—barely go through any college selection process at all. Their options may be quite limited because they do not have the financial resources to go away to school and/or they are able to consider only those options that mesh with their job schedules and family responsibilities. In many instances, college selection is more constrained and happenstance than deliberate choice.1 Among those who did not complete college, two-thirds say they selected their school primarily for its convenient location, nearly 6 in 10 because its schedule worked with theirs and 57 percent because the tuition and fees were affordable. A third based their choice on the academic reputation of the school and only a quarter on recommendations from friends and family.

Given that students who drop out of college are far more likely to come from families in which neither parent has a college degree, the minimal role played by recommendations from friends and family may not be surprising. Perhaps most notable is that when respondents who dropped out of college were asked about the most important reason they chose their school, a third named convenience or proximity to their home.

In Seattle, a woman who had left college said, “I just picked [the school] that was close to where I lived and that a couple of my friends were going to.” In Phoenix, a man told us, “It was ASU [Arizona State University] that I chose, partly because of cost and partly just because of proximity, because ASU is really the easiest school for me to get to from where I live.”

For students who successfully complete their degrees, the selection process is dramatically and substantively different: Their top reasons for choosing their school include that the school offered a desired program or major, the belief that going to the school will help them secure a good job and the school’s academic reputation. Tuition and fees are important considerations for any college student today, but among those who dropped out, the selection process seems more a matter of chance or location, not the pursuit of a specific goal or future career.

[1] Research has shown that many students focus their entire college search within the enclave colleges of the traditional feeder patterns—largely public, two-year or nonselective and somewhat selective four-year colleges. See, for example: Nagaoka, Roderick and Coca, “Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons from Chicago,” The Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, January 2009.