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Universities and colleges may be competing to build such perks as climbing walls and fancy dormitories, but the “arms race” over residence halls, food services, and fitness centers is having little effect on college applicants’ choices, new research shows.

Gym at Ohio State University. (Photo by Stu Spivack) Credit: Stu Spivack

Conducted before and after the economic downturn by economists Kevin Rask of Colorado College and Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University, the research says students are more interested in price and prestige than in amenities.

Families that do and do not qualify for financial aid are equally concerned about cost and reputation, particularly as measured by the U.S. News and World Report rankings, Rask and Griffith found after surveying high-achieving students in various income categories who started college between 2005 and the academic year just ended.

Students who were eligible for financial aid were 2.1 percentage points less likely to choose an institution for every $1,000 increase in its price, and 1.2 percentage points more likely to enroll for every level a school improved in the U.S. News rankings.

The findings parallel those of the annual national survey of freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, in which that two out of three said economic conditions affected where they went to college, and more than 13 percent could not afford their first choice.

The importance of the rankings in attracting students, meanwhile, has been one of the factors blamed in several cases in which universities have been discovered misrepresenting some of their admissions statistics to improve their standings.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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  1. Just wanted to echo Rebecca’s question. It’s difficult to evaluate the credibility of these claims without looking closer at the methodology of the study. A finding without methodological context is simply an assertion.

  2. Thanks for sharing the link to the study! On page 8, the authors write that “while the importance of cost has increased over time, there has not been a corresponding decrease in the importance of any amenities except academic facilities, and if anything there is a stronger weight given to academic reputation.”

    They note that “students still appear to be demanding, at least by self-report, almost all of the expensive academic investments and non-academic amenities which make it difficult for colleges to both offer these amenities and keep costs down.”

    The authors do make a distinction between raw numbers and their “econometric analysis,” and they also argue that price/reputation are increasingly important. But I wonder if they would agree with the headline of this posting.

    Perhaps a more accurate headline would be “Fancy college dorms and gyms still help draw applicants, but price/reputation are increasingly important factors.”

  3. An earlier paper by Jacob, McCall and Stange (National Bureau of Economic Research) found differently. The abstract is available here:
    http://www.nber.org/papers/w18745?utm_campaign=ntw&utm_medium=email&utm_source=ntw
    Whether these apparently conflicting conclusions are attributable to differing research methodologies or actual changes in attitudes and priorities isn’t clear.
    Or, perhaps, they are both right. It may be true that amenities don’t significantly influence the decision to apply (they don’t “draw applicants”) but it may also be true that amenities are a big factor when students who have been accepted to more than one school choose which one to attend. The first year applicant pool and the actual enrolled class are two very different populations.

  4. Eh, this research is a little weak . Sure students say they’re “more interested in price and prestige than in amenities,” but if all colleges have been increasingly amenities, it’s had to show that really isn’t a factor. What would be useful would be a look at colleges’ actual increase in applications relative to their spending on amenities.

  5. I concur with the questions of accuracy in this report. One key point is what if the schools one is choosing between are similar in price and perceived “academic quality?’ After serving over 20 years on 4 college campuses including one that is the home school of one of the researchers, I can verify that better facilities are a key determining factor for both parents and students.

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