ERIC Identifier: ED333854
Publication Date: 1990-05-00
Author: Paulsen, Michael B.
Source: Association for the Study of Higher Education.| ERIC
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington Univ.
Washington DC. School of Education and Human Development.
College Choice: Understanding Student Enrollment Behavior.
In the 1970s, projections clearly indicated that the traditional college
student cohort of 18 to 21 year olds would fall by 25 percent between the
late 1970s and the early 1990s (WICHE 1988). Colleges unhappily watched
the number of traditional college-level jobs per college graduate decrease.
Potential students became consumers and flexed their newfound marketplace
muscle. Fears of cutbacks in important sources of student financial aid
intensified as the 1970s came to an end. The higher education marketplace
was changing in many ways which threatened to produce significant enrollment
HOW DID COLLEGES RESPOND TO ENROLLMENT-THREATENING CHANGES?
Faced with prospects of reduced enrollments, budget deficits, retrenchment,
and institutional closings, many administrators paid more attention to
enrollment maintenance, became more responsive to market interests and
more aware of the increasingly competitive nature of student recruitment,
and began to engage in market-oriented activities intended to attract students.
Each year's students became more like academic shoppers or consumers (Riesman
1980), preferring vocational, occupational, or professional courses over
courses in the traditional arts and sciences.
WHY IS KNOWLEDGE OF COLLEGE CHOICE BEHAVIOR IMPORTANT?
From the 1970s through today, colleges have developed two basic market-oriented
desires. They want to plan and forecast their enrollment more effectively,
and they want to influence the college-going decision-making process of
desired students. The study of college choice behavior is of great practical
importance for administrators in promoting greater effectiveness in these
two areas. The study of enrollment behavior of students in groups (macro-level)
indicates how changes in environmental and institutional characteristics
affect an institution's total enrollment. The study of the college choice
behavior of individual students (micro-level) indicates the ways in which
environmental, institutional, and student characteristics affect a student's
choices about whether or not to attend college and which college to attend.
It is the results of these studies which provide the fundamental knowledge
bases for enhancing the effectiveness of enrollment planning activities
and student marketing and recruitment activities (Hossler 1984).
WHAT ARE THE CONCEPTUAL BASES FOR THE STUDY OF COLLEGE CHOICE BEHAVIOR?
Most studies of student enrollment behavior have been conducted by educational
researchers with backgrounds in either psychology, sociology, or economics.
These disciplines offer somewhat different perspectives and conceptual
foundations for the study of college choice behavior. Psychologists emphasize
the psychological environment, or climate, of an institution, its impact
on students, and student-institution fit (Astin 1965). Sociologists view
the formation of college-going aspirations as part of a general status
attainment process. Economists view college attendance decisions as a form
of investment-like decision-making behavior (Jackson 1978).
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND WHAT DETERMINES ENROLLMENT AT DIFFERENT
The enrollment effects of changes in the economy often are unexpectedly
complex, but important to understand. Positive enrollment effects can result
from increasing job market opportunities for college graduates or from
decreasing job market opportunities for noncollege graduates. General economic
recessions usually reduce job market opportunities in positions traditionally
held by noncollege graduates more than they do opportunities in positions
normally held by college graduates. As a result, general economic recessions
can stimulate enrollment by making job market opportunities for college
graduates relatively superior to those for noncollege graduates. Also,
when conditions in the college job market deteriorate, enrollment tends
to favor colleges emphasizing professional or vocational curricula. However,
when college job market opportunities increase, enrollment tends to favor
colleges emphasizing traditional liberal arts and sciences curricula (Paulsen
and Pogue 1988).
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND INDIVIDUAL ENROLLMENT BEHAVIOR?
The greatest contribution of the micro-level studies of college choice
behavior is their ability to estimate the effects of institutional and
student characteristics on the probability that a particular individual
will choose a particular college. Understanding the enrollment effects
of such characteristics can help enrollment managers tailor and target
their college's marketing mix of programs, prices, and places to those
students possessing characteristics similar to those who most often matriculate
at their college.
Some enrollment effects of the interaction between student and institutional
characteristics are especially important to understand. For example, student
responsiveness to college cost decreases as income and academic ability
rise, and vice versa. Also, recent research has shown that students are
now about equally sensitive to changes in the major parts of college cost:
tuition, room and board, commuting, financial aid, and foregone earnings
(Manski and Wise 1983).
WHY IS THE COLLEGE SEARCH AND APPLICATION PHASE SO IMPORTANT?
It is in this phase of the choice process that most colleges are eliminated
from consideration by students. Of course, potential students exist in
substantial quantities across all levels of socioeconomic backgrounds and
academic abilities. Therefore they will preselect institutional categories
across all levels of institutional selectivity, cost, distance from home,
and so on. Each college must work hard to find appropriate matches between
the characteristics of the students it seeks to recruit and the characteristics
of its own institution. Each college must work hard to be included in the
choices of such students.
HOW CAN AN INSTITUTION MORE EFFECTIVELY MANAGE ENROLLMENT IN THE
SELECTION AND ATTENDANCE PHASE?
Individual institutions engaged in academic market research usually
study student enrollment behavior in this final phase (Litten et al. 1983).
Analysis of data collected from admitted student questionnaires on student
characteristics and ratings of the characteristics of a college and its
competitors allows a college to identify its competitors, assess its image,
determine its market position compared to competitors, identify what determines
matriculation choices, and identify student market segments by enrollment
Given the availability of such information, an institution has two broad
* recruit students with characteristics consistent with the characteristics
of the college;
* adjust the characteristics of the college so they are more consistent
with the student characteristics desired by the college.
Astin, Alexander. 1965. Who Goes Where to College? Chicago: Science
Hossler, Don. 1984. Enrollment Management: An Integrated Approach. New
York: College Entrance Examination Board.
Ihlanfeldt, William. 1980. Achieving Optimal Enrollments and Tuition
Revenues: A Guide to Modern Methods of Market Research, Student Recruitment,
and Institutional Pricing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jackson, Gregory A. 1978. "Financial Aid and Student Enrollment." Journal
of Higher Education 49: 548-574.
Litten, Larry H., Daniel Sullivan, and David L. Brodigan. 1983. Applying
Market Research in College Admissions. New York: College Entrance Examination
Manski, Charles F., and David A. Wise. 1983. College Choice in America.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Paulsen, Michael B., and Thomas F. Pogue. 1988. "Higher Education Enrollment:
The Interaction of Labor Market Conditions, Curriculum, and Selectivity."
Economics of Education Review 7(3): 275-290.
Riesman, David. 1980. On Higher Education: The Academic Enterprise in
an Era of Rising Student Consumerism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, et. al. 1988. High
School Graduates: Projections by State, 1986 to 2004. Boulder, CO: Western
Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC
Higher Education Report series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher
Education in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education,
and published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.