Becoming Our Students’ First Choice

In a guest post today, John M. Baworowsky writes about how students make their college decisions, and the effect that can have on their campus experience. Mr. Baworowsky, vice president for enrollment management at Dominican University of California, is one of several professionals writing occasional guest posts on Head Count this year.

Recently, I met with Emily, a college-bound high-school senior, to discuss her career interests and college choices. I am always delighted to have the opportunity to speak with high-school seniors because it allows me to better understand the motivations and interests of today’s students.

Emily had a sincere interest in becoming a marine biologist. As I asked questions, I learned that she had researched the field and knew which schools had the best programs.

This student mentioned that she had developed a short list of institutions around the country, and judging by her SAT score and grade-point average, it appeared she would be admitted to all of them.

However, her parents wanted her to stay within the state of California. In fact, they made it clear that financial support would be forthcoming only if she did so. Rather than finding the situation restrictive, this young woman was completely happy honoring their request and chose not to apply to any of the out-of-state colleges.

Her situation is not uncommon. Not long ago, during a national presentation on parents’ involvement in the college-selection process, I shared data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, which showed 75 percent of students frequently follow parental advice. Further, those students with so-called helicopter parents reported higher levels of engagement and greater satisfaction with the college experience. And in yet another survey, the Student Poll from the Art & Science Group and the College Board, 44 percent of students stated they wanted their parents to help decide which colleges they could afford.

Clearly this young woman wanted to balance her parents’ preferences with her own. I wondered if she would be settling for her second- or even third-choice institution, and the effect that might have on her satisfaction with the institution.

It led me to ponder a question: What are the implications of students’ attending an institution other than their first choice? The Cooperative Institutional Research Program reported in its 2011 survey that while 76 percent of first-time college students surveyed had been admitted to their first-choice institution, only 57.9 percent of those students enrolled there. That means 40 percent of students are going to a college that is not their first choice.

If we know that many of our new students are not enrolled at their first choices, how do we exceed the expectations they bring to our campuses so that they are both successful and happy? Our campuswide student-success efforts might do well to view orientation and retention programming for new students through the lens of students who may still need to be “sold” on the value of attending our institution. I believe that if we present our university well, we can become those students’ first choice after they arrive.

Thinking back on my conversation with Emily, I could tell that this young woman was looking forward to everything college life had to offer. But make no mistake: She is going to college to gain the skills and credentials to become a marine biologist. I realized that her reason for attending college was consistent with her peers’. Almost 86 percent of students in the CIRP survey stated that getting a better job was very important in their college selection.

Given students’ focus on careers, we need to provide support to assist them on their path to employment as part of our student-success programming. Noel-Levitz’s 2012 Freshmen Attitudes Report says that more than 65 percent of first-year students attending a private four-year institution wanted help in selecting an education plan that would prepare them to get a good job. Yet when surveyed again at midyear, only 38 percent reported receiving that help.

It is critical, therefore, to involve our faculty and career-planning professionals early in the academic life of our students. Intentional conversations and programming leading to early career planning may result in increased student satisfaction and higher completion rates.

While all students would like to attend their first-choice colleges, the reality is that high-school seniors are balancing parental desires and their own career interests in making the decision. So it is our job to promote our institutions as a first choice—even after they arrive on our campuses.

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