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There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a college that’s the right fit for a student: academic, social, experiential, and financial.

Choosing the “right” college—the one that best fits a student’s needs—plays an important part in his or her success.

Most students ages 18 – 24 who are currently attending college started shortly after completing high school. How America Values College 2018 survey results show that 64 percent enrolled in college less than six months after high school graduation.

On average, students submitted an application to 3.4 colleges. Nearly one quarter of college students (24%) applied only to one school. On the other end of the spectrum, about one-seventh (14%) applied to 6 or more schools.

Students who applied to more than one school received an average of 2.8 financial aid awards: 73 percent received more than one; 20 percent received only one financial aid offer; and 7 percent received none.

While students may have applied only to 3.4 schools on average, they likely narrowed down their list from dozens, if not hundreds, of choices. For 79 percent of families, the actual or perceived cost of a college was a factor when determining whether to apply to a college as well as ultimately whether to attend after being admitted.

Families were asked whether cost drove them to eliminate any colleges from their list of potential schools during the application process; specifically, whether they had eliminated colleges at each of four steps:

Step 1 (research): More than half of families (53%) eliminated schools due to perceived cost before they even researched colleges, the first step in the process.
Step 2 (pre-application): Even more families (58%) eliminated schools after researching colleges but before applying.
Step 3 (post-admission): Fewer families (42%) eliminated schools after receiving an acceptance letter but before receiving a financial aid package.
Step 4 (post-financial aid): Most families who eliminated schools due to cost did so after receiving the financial aid package (59%).

Price is a more preventive factor among students (91%) than parents (68%) when deciding where to attend. As many as 50 percent more students than parents say they eliminated schools from consideration based on cost at each step of the process.

Elimination of colleges due to cost

Other reasons for choosing a college

A number of factors, from academics to cost to lifestyle, should be evaluated before deciding on—and investing in—a student’s education.

Cost-related factors: After eliminating colleges outright and narrowing down their list of potential schools, 78 percent of families again weigh financial factors when considering which school ultimately to select. The top financial consideration families use to evaluate a school is the expected financial aid package. Here is the proportion of families who considered the following financial criteria:

Although only 20 percent consciously selected a school within commuting distance of home, most students attend college within their home state, which tends to be less expensive than traveling out of state, especially if attending a public university. Overall, 77 percent of students chose an in-state college. Students in the Midwest (80%) and South (79%) are slightly more likely to stay in state than those in the West (74%) and Northeast (75%).

Academic factors: An equal proportion of families consider academic criteria (77%) as consider financial criteria when making their final college selection. In the overall ranking of reasons why a college is selected, the academic program related to the student’s major emerges as the number one reason.

Here are the academic factors considered and the proportion who considered them:

Personal preference factors: Sixty-three percent of families considered a variety of personal preference criteria when deciding on a school. Campus setting has an influence on more students than other personal preference measures:

Most families try to get a sense of what life will be like for the student at the college he or she is planning to attend. Before deciding to enroll, 83 percent of students visited the campus. No doubt, these visits helped the students who are influenced by the college campus and its setting to make their decision.

It’s important to identify what’s most important to each student for optimal satisfaction and obtaining a good return on the investment in college.

Choosing an online college education

While the availability of online classes was a determining factor for only 9 percent of the population, a far higher proportion—43 percent—took advantage of the option. Most took a combination of online and in-person classes, but 8 percent of students took online classes exclusively.

Sixty percent of students who took any online classes say these classes fit into the student’s personal schedule or lifestyle better than in-person classes. Additional convenience factors include accessing class without having to travel (36%) and the fact that the school’s location doesn’t matter (20%). On the other hand, 10 percent of students took a class online because they didn’t have a choice—that particular course was only available online.

Setting convenience aside, students are taking online classes for other, practical reasons. Nearly half of students taking online courses (45%) say they learn better online, and one-third of students (35%) say online classes are more affordable.

Find out more about How America Values College 2018.

How families are making college more affordable
Sticker price? Work-study? Free tuition? How well do you understand paying-for-college terminology?
The advantages of planning how to pay for college
Top 10 things college students wish they’d known before enrolling
Appreciating the value and benefits of a college education
College majors and salary expectations


About this study
How America Values College 2018, a national study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, explores how families of undergraduates regard the value of higher education, the factors that influence their choice of schools, and the steps they’re taking to make college affordable.

Source: How America Values College 2018, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.