Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Number 4

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 1

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Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Right to Learn and the Pathways to College Network
Faculty Involvement
Designing Pathways to a Four-Year Degree
Preparing Students to Succeed in Broad Access Postsecondary Institutions
African-American Student Achievement in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
College Choice and Diversity
Making Diversity News
Media Watch
Linking Student Support with Student Success: The Posse Foundation
Diversity Digest’s New Editor

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 Network

Patricia M. McDonough
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 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.

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 choice.

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.

Race Matters

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 (HIS).

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.

Schools Matter

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 placement classes.
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.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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