Students: Rankings Aren't Main Reason in College Choice

New report shows that college rankings play an important but not a pivotable role in choosing a school.

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Once again, a large scale social research study has contradicted the 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 UCLA's just-released "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2011," a highly regarded annual survey. This year's data is based on the responses of 203,967 entering first-year students at 270 U.S. four-year colleges and universities.

The UCLA survey asks new students to rate which factors were "very important" in influencing their decision to attend a particular college. Incoming fall 2011 freshmen could choose as many of the 22 reasons listed as they wanted. For the second year in a row, the college rankings finished in 11th place. At least, based on this large nationwide sample of freshmen from all types of colleges, students are consulting the rankings, but not as the most powerful force in their college search process.

[Learn how to use the college rankings wisely.]

These results also support another key premise in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings methodology that weights undergraduate academic reputation at 22.5 percent. Students in the UCLA survey rated whether a college has a good academic reputation as being the No. 1 factor that influenced their school choice, indicating their firm belief that a college's academic reputation does matter to a significant degree. U.S. News's Best Colleges rankings measures the relative reputations of colleges and includes it as one of the most heavily weighted ranking variables.

Below are the 22 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 selection to attend their college.

1. College has very good academic reputation (63.7 percent)

2. This college's graduates get good jobs (54.6 percent)

3. I was offered financial assistance (44.0 percent)

4. A visit to the campus (42.5 percent)

5. The cost of attending this college (40.6 percent)

6. College has a good reputation for its social activities (38.6 percent)

7. Wanted to go to a college about this size (38.1 percent)

8. College's grads get into top grad/professional schools (33.4 percent)

9. I wanted to live near home (18.9 percent)

10. Information from a website (18.5 percent)

11. Rankings in national magazines (18.2 percent)

12. Admitted early decision and/or early action (15.0 percent)

13. Parents wanted me to go to this school (14.3 percent)

14. Could not afford first choice (12.6 percent)

15. High school counselor advised me (9.5 percent)

16. Not offered aid by first choice (9.3 percent)

17. Athletic department recruited me (8.3 percent)

18. Attracted by religious affiliation/orientation of college (6.8 percent)

19. My relatives wanted me to come here (6.1 percent)

20. My teacher advised me (6.0 percent)

21. Private college counselor advised me (3.5 percent)

22. Ability to take online courses (2.7 percent)

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