Analyzing How Students Pick Which College to Attend

June 13, 2022
Oksana Leukhina

Oksana Leukhina, economist and research officer

Once they graduate from high school, some students go directly to a four-year college or university, while others start out at a local community college. What factors play into their choice?

In a February 2021 Timely Topics Podcast episode, St. Louis Fed economist and Research Officer Oksana Leukhina discussed her research on the college selection process.

Leukhina and her co-researchers looked at two different groups of students: those who entered college in the 1980s and those who entered in the 2000s. She noted that there was a large increase in college enrollment in the 2000s, but the higher enrollment rate wasn’t uniform among students.

“Basically, what we saw happen is that students that increased their enrollment rates the most were those in the middle range of the high school GPA distribution and whose parents were relatively well-off,” she said. “By that, I just mean the parents whose income was in the upper half of the income distribution.”

At the same time, the financial costs increased quite a bit for students enrolled in the 2000s, with the direct cost of college more than doubling, she pointed out.

“We found that the younger cohort basically had to rely more heavily on parental transfers. And that is the most important source of those extra resources.”

The researchers found evidence that rising tuition costs caused some students to downgrade their college picks, she pointed out.

“We saw that 30% of freshman in the 1980s went to community colleges, while 37% chose to do so in the early 2000s,” she said. “And what we see is that downgrading of college type happened mainly for lower-performing high school graduates.”

Leukhina and her colleagues also found the opposite happening for students in the top half of high school GPA distribution. Those students were upgrading their college type by choosing schools that were ranked higher in terms of average freshman SAT scores.

Leukhina discussed her research findings related to college sorting in detail in the Timely Topics Podcast episode. Listen to it here.

This blog offers relevant commentary, analysis, research and data from our economists and other St. Louis Fed experts. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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