Study examines reasons for students' choice of where to attend college

financial aid awards

According to new research from Maguire Associates and Fastweb.com, the primary factor in most students' choice of where to attend college comes down to a combination of perceived educational quality and costs.

Thirty-seven percent of high school seniors surveyed said the current economy heavily or highly influenced where they chose to enroll, and 31 percent of those that didn't enroll in their first-choice college said their main reason was that they couldn't afford it.

"Families are looking carefully at whether colleges and universities deliver the ROI they're promising to students," Maguire Associates senior vice president Tara Scholder said in a statement. "This means that to meet their enrollment management goals, institutions will need to prove their value, as well as be strategic with their financial aid awards."

Key reasons students gave for enrolling at their college of choice were as follows:

  • quality of major (45 percent)
  • scholarship or financial assistance (43 percent)
  • total costs (41 percent)
  • academic reputation (38 percent)

Fifty-six percent of the students surveyed received need-based financial aid from the schools where they enrolled--though 82 percent had applied for it.

Thirty-three percent of students who had preferred a public education, but chose to enroll in a private college instead, had appealed the initial financial aid offer from their college of choice--and 45 percent had received more aid as a result.

Similarly, public schools that "sweetened" their financial aid packages also persuaded students to enroll, even if those students had previously preferred a private college. Nineteen percent of those who switched to a public institution had appealed their financial aid offers, and 32 percent of those were successful in doing so.

"Although students were less likely to switch their enrollment choice from their initial preference of a public college to a private institution than vice versa, financial issues were one of the most significant reasons for a switch in either direction," Fastweb.com publisher Mark Kantrowitz said in a statement. "These issues contributed to the difficulty of making their final choice."

Almost 2,400 high school seniors were surveyed in the follow-up to the annual College Decision Impact Survey conducted in January of 2011.