College Choice and Diversity
By Patricia M. McDonough, associate professor
of the Graduate School of Education and Information
Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, and
member of the Research Scholars Panel, Pathways to College
||Patricia M. McDonough
Why do students make the college choices that they
do? We often assume that students choose colleges in
a logical, methodical fashion; in fact, the selection
of a college occurs in a variety of ways. Although academic
achievement remains the most important determinant of
whether and where students go to college, other powerful
factors come into play, including race and ethnicity,
gender, social class, high school preparation, near-
and long-term aspirations, parents, and peers. The factors
that contribute to an institution’s attractiveness
include its competitiveness, entrance requirements,
financial aid, location, institutional reputation, campus
climate, and marketing.
Early family support and encouragement, both of which
are among the strongest predictors of four-year college
attendance, spur students to form educational plans
by the eighth grade. These two elements are the twin
keys to maintaining college aspirations, sustaining
motivation and academic achievement in high school,
and actually enrolling in college.
But a school environment also has a powerful influence
on students’ college aspirations and preparation.
Schools can provide incentives by offering a college-preparatory
curriculum; a culture which encourages high academic
standards; formal and informal communication networks
that promote and support college expectations; teachers
and counselors committed to students’ college
goals; and resources devoted to counseling and advising
college-bound students. Given the racially and economically
stratified school systems in the United States, low-income
students of color are often deprived of the kind of
schools that can provide such an environment.
General Factors Influencing College Choice
Students from families
low socioeconomic status (SES), rural students,
and women are
more likely to attend less selective institutions,
regardless of their levels of academic ability,
achievement, and expectations.
How do students choose their college? Almost all students
say they selected their undergraduate institution because
it has a “good academic reputation.” Many
students select their college with an eye toward converting
college degrees into high paying jobs or to better position
themselves for graduate school. After that, however,
research has shown that race, ethnicity, and social
class significantly affect a student’s college
Oftentimes, students fall into two distinct subgroups:
1) those who emphasize the utilitarian, instrumental
value of a college education—attending college
to increase job opportunities and earning power—versus
2) those who emphasize getting a solid liberal education.
The utilitarian students tend to be first-generation
college attendees and tend to enroll in public, regional,
and religious colleges closer to home. Those interested
in a liberal education typically set their sights on
selective public and private universities that might
position them for access to top graduate schools. These
students, most of whom have college-educated parents,
are willing to move away from home. Both pathways reflect
students’ desires for educational and social mobility.
Students from families with low socioeconomic status
(SES), rural students, and women are more likely to
attend less selective institutions, regardless of their
levels of academic ability, achievement, and expectations.
This trend is most pronounced among students of high
ability. Not surprisingly, low-SES students are quick
to rule out “high-priced” colleges and are
sensitive to college costs and financial aid offers.
Several research studies have shown that even when
achievement is held constant, a student’s racial
background is still central to the question of where
an individual attends college. While most students get
into their first-choice colleges, African Americans
and Latinos are less likely to get into their first-choice
colleges than whites and Asian-American students.
African-American and Latino students are particularly
likely to attend less selective institutions, regardless
of their levels of demonstrated academic ability. White
and Asian-American students’ college choices are
less dependent upon a financial-aid offer, yet such
an offer is a relatively strong influence for Latino
and African-American students. Often, Latinos and African
Americans also place importance on the religious affiliations
of their colleges.
Regardless of gender, family income, or educational
aspiration, African-American students who select historically
black colleges are influenced by mentors, friends, and
family members as well as by their religious affiliation
with and proximity to the college. Conversely, counselors,
teachers, and college representatives influence African-American
students who choose predominantly white colleges. Social
networks and geography similarly influence the Latino
students who choose an Hispanic-serving institution
In fact, when looking at African-American, Latino,
and Asian-American students, individual mentors are
often pivotal figures in college preparation and enrollment.
Many of these mentors are teachers. Teacher-student
relationships, especially for students of color, affect
whether students choose to go to college, what college
or type of college they choose, and the selectivity
of college chosen.
There are also interesting variations of student choices
based on the actual or perceived racial atmosphere of
the college. African-American and Latino students and
parents, for example, describe tensions between their
desire for the best education possible and their perception
of some campus climates as racially hostile and unwelcoming.
The perception of a dearth of students of color on campuses
influences these students’ and parents’
college choices. Other research has shown that underserved
minorities who are primarily first-generation, college-bound
students are constrained by a lack of knowledge of the
collegiate experience, as well as by a lack of trained
professionals to advise them.
While a high school’s culture and the adequacy
of its college-preparatory course offerings strongly
influence college attendance patterns, very few students
of color and low-SES students attend such high schools.
Too often, these students are enrolled in high schools
that fail to meet the entrance requirements of more
competitive colleges because of shortages of qualified
teachers and counselors, and inadequate honors and advanced
Typically, college admissions are represented as if
every student had equal choices. When it comes to K-12
educational systems and college preparation, however,
the options are anything but equal. Low-SES students
and students of color need a more rigorous high school
curriculum, better information about college costs,
better and earlier notification about financial-aid
packages, a critical mass of students of color on college
campuses, and more affirming campus climates. With these
factors in place, they might actually begin to have
choices about whether and where to go to college.