Freshmen Students Say Rankings Aren't Key Factor in College Choice

Once more, the largest and longest running survey of new U.S. college students refutes the often-stated belief by many in higher education that the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are the primary factor in the average student's choice of college. That conclusion comes from the University of California--Los Angeles's just-released survey, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012." This year's data is based on the responses of 192,912 first-year students at 238 U.S. four-year colleges and universities who entered college in fall 2012.

The highly regarded annual survey asks new freshmen to rate which factors were "very important" in influencing their decision to attend a particular college. Incoming fall 2012 freshmen could choose as many of the 23 reasons listed as they wanted.

Similar to the findings of previous years' surveys, college rankings were far from the top reason, finishing in 12th place in the latest edition of the survey. Based on this large, nationwide sample of freshmen from all types of colleges, students are consulting the rankings, but not relying on them as the most powerful force in their college search process.

Students in the UCLA survey rated whether a college has a good academic reputation as the No. 1 factor that influenced their school choice, indicating their firm belief that reputation matters to a significant degree. These results support a key premise in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings methodology, which gives undergraduate academic reputation a weight of 22.5 percent in our National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking categories. Our rankings measure the relative reputations of colleges and include them as one of the most heavily weighted ranking variables.

Additionally, one key trend found in "The American Freshman" survey is how the cost of college affects school choice. The "cost of attending this college" was in fourth place as a reason for attendance and reached an all-time high percentage of 43.3 percent. Other reasons rising to all-time highs were "could not afford first choice" and "not offered aid by their first choice."

Below are the 23 reasons for choosing a college that students were offered in the latest UCLA survey. They are ranked in descending order, based on which factors students said were "very important" in influencing their final college selection.

1. College has very good academic reputation (63.8 percent)

2. This college's graduates get good jobs (55.9 percent)

3. I was offered financial assistance (45.6 percent)

4. The cost of attending this college (43.3 percent)

5. A visit to this campus (41.8 percent)

6. College has a good reputation for its social activities (40.2 percent)

7. Wanted to go to a college about this size (38.8 percent)

8. College's grads get into top grad/professional schools (32.8 percent)

9. The percentage of students that graduate from this college (30.4 percent)

10. I wanted to live near home (20.1 percent)

11. Information from a website (18.7 percent)

12. Rankings in national magazines (18.2 percent)

13. Parents wanted me to go to this school (15.1 percent)

14. Admitted early decision and/or early action (13.7 percent)

15. Could not afford first choice (13.4 percent)

16. High school counselor advised me (10.3 percent)

17. Not offered aid by first choice (9.5 percent)

18. Athletic department recruited me (8.9 percent)

19. Attracted by the religious affiliation/orientation of college (7.4 percent)

20. My relatives wanted me to come here (6.8 percent)

20. My teacher advised me (6.8 percent)

22. Private college counselor advised me (3.8 percent)

23. Ability to take online courses (3.2 percent)