Academic journal article College and University

The College Decision-Making of High Achieving Students

Academic journal article College and University

The College Decision-Making of High Achieving Students

Article excerpt


At semi-structured interview process is used to study the college decision-making process of academically talented students. Our findings suggest that these students weigh additional factors and engage in the process differently than typical high school students. For example,

the students' use broader networks, consider more institutions and feel more pressures throughout the process.

There have been many efforts by researchers in recent years to understand the college choice process. Efforts include the development of general theoretical models that depict the college choice process and the examination of various factors that influence this decision (Chapman 1981; Hossler and Gallagher 1987; Litten 1982; Moore and Elmer 1992). Most of this research centers on establishing general theoretical tenets that apply to all prospective college students. Few studies have targeted specific market segments to determine whether influences vary in importance among different groups of students. Moreover, college choice models are based almost entirely on the results of quantitative surveys in which students choose those factors that most influenced their decision from among a predetermined list of possible influences. There is little qualitative research in this area that allows students to articulate in depth the various factors they considered when choosing a college campus. This study describes the nature of the college decision-making process of high achieving high school seniors.

Initially, the study of high achieving students might appear to be an overly narrow focus, given the expanding size and composition of the overall prospective college student population. Nevertheless, this specific cohort is highly coveted by colleges and universities across the country as evidenced by the expanding proportion of merit-based scholarships targeted at these students (McPherson and Schapiro 1998). The importance of high achieving students is further magnified given that legislative support and institutional funding levels are increasingly being tied to student outcomes (Martinez 1999; Richardson et al. 1998). From a practical standpoint, the extent to which a campus can attract the most academically talented students speaks directly to the campus' ability to successfully navigate legislative and public demands for accountability and assessment outcomes that center on student success. In short, high achieving students increase a campus' local and national prestige, which directly and indirectly leads to an increase in funding opportunities.

Given the importance of this segment of students and an over-reliance on quantitative methods to assess college choice, this study uses qualitative methods to focus on the college choice decision-making process of high achieving students. The findings should add detail to the theoretical models that focus on all prospective students generally. Given the unusually high level of academic preparation represented by this sample, these students may experience a different set of pressures and/or weight college choice factors differently than other groups of prospective students. The paper begins with an overview of the literature on college choice from multiple perspectives and then presents and discusses findings from this study.

Understanding College Choice

There has been a considerable amount of research on college choice in the past three decades. Interest in this area began in the 1970s within sociology. This early research focused on studies examining the process of social mobility and occupational attainment (Alexander and Eckland 1976; Sewell and Shah 1967). Other areas of interest during this period include examining college choice as an example of complex decision-making (Lewis and Morrison 1975) or within the context of deciding on major purchases within families (Wright and Kriewall 1979).

The nature of this research changed in the 1980s and 90s, in part because of the pressing challenges facing institutions of higher education. …

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