In this paper I investigate the college enrollment decisions of a nationally representative cohort of students who first attended in the mid-2000s. I find that while cost, distance, and match continued to be important in the choice between colleges, characteristics of the most-likely college choice appear less important in the choice of whether to enroll at all when controlling for student characteristics and local labor market conditions. Subpopulation analyses on students with high SAT scores and students with low family income, two groups that remain the focus of many financial aid policies, indicate some differences in the way these particular students chose college. Extending prior work by modeling discrete steps in the enrollment decision process—application and enrollment conditional on application—I find choice characteristics were most significant in the application stage. These results support other research that shows students may self-select out of potentially better college matches due to lack of information about actual costs or limited geographic opportunity.
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For clarity and space in this section, I collapse the college enrollment decision into the single decision to attend. Application to college as an intermediate step in the enrollment process, modeled separately from attendance, is implied.
Approximately 12% of institutions were missing information on instructional expenditures in 2004, meaning that instructional expenditures per FTE student could not be computed. Due to the computational demands of fitting the conditional logit model to large data set, a multiple imputation procedure was not feasible. Rather than drop these institutions from the option set (and bias the results) I employed Buck’s method of conditional mean imputation (Little 1992; Buck 1960). The results of the conditional logit models obtained with these imputed values are similar to those obtained when the unadjusted fitted values are used.
Full-time equivalent enrollment and various polynomial term were also included in the model but are not reported.
Application outcomes are reported in the second wave of the ELS survey. Final attendance outcomes are reported in the third wave. Because not all ELS students reported applications or began after the second wave collection (but within the two-year enrollment window), fewer students are included in the application model than in the unconditional attendance. Though applications could be logically imputed for those in the first model who attend but are missing application information, I have chosen only to include those students with complete application data in the second and subsequently third models.
As a test on robustness, I also fit a conditional logit choice model on attendance conditional on acceptance. Most of the multiple applicants (\(\sim\) 85%) were accepted to multiple schools and could be included in the model. Results were qualitatively similar to those for attendance conditional on application, and are available upon request.
These numbers consider the difference between the most-likely application school and the actual application school that was closest in the predicted rankings.
More detail about the procedure and accompanying figures can be found in the online appendix.
The unannounced shutdown of the Data Retrieval Tool from March to October 2017 due to concerns over data security make the future reliability and potential usefulness of this tool less certain.
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I would like to thank Brent Evans, Laura Perna, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on previous iterations of this paper. I would also like to thank Will Doyle, Dale Ballou, Dominique Baker, and Richard Blissett for their thoughts and suggestions throughout. All errors and mistakes in interpretation remain my own.
In this study, characteristics of the most-likely college (or nearest public two-year institution) were not consistently predictive of whether a student would enroll in college within two-years of high school graduation. In particular, the parameter on distance, which was negatively correlated with the choice between colleges and negatively signed across logistic models, was only statistically significant at the 5% level in two of eight models. Student-specific characteristics such as SAT percentile, family income, parental education, and gender as well as local unemployment rates were more consistently predictive of enrollment.
In the discussion section of the paper, I note that while these results suggest that distance was less important for students when choosing whether to attend college, it may also be the case that correlation between model covariates masks underlying realities about college access. If students are not sorted randomly in relation to postsecondary options, but instead are clustered based on observable characteristics such as family income, parental education level, and race/ethnicity, then it may be that controlling for these characteristics in a regression framework offers misleading insights into the relationship between distance and enrollment. To investigate whether distances to the closest public postsecondary institution are related to the likelihood of college enrollment, I proposed a thought experiment and method for carrying it out using synthetic data. I describe the procedure and results below.
I first use U.S. Census data to construct a population of synthetic students, each one representing a single census tract in the lower 48 states and created using its population characteristics. Specifically, synthetic students represent the “modal” person from the tract in that their characteristics are assigned using modal values of tract demographics. For example, in a tract in which women outnumber men, the student becomes female; in tracts where the plurality of residents have some college education, the student is assigned a parental education level of some college, and so on. Because Census data do not give SAT scores, I generate four students for each tract, each with a different SAT percentile—30th, 50th, 70th, or 90th—representing different levels of college readiness. As with the ELS cohort students, I first predict each synthetic student’s most-likely college to attend and then, using the characteristics of this college as well as those of the student, the likelihood that they will enroll in college. I generate four sets of predictions in total, one for each SAT percentile.
Figure 1 shows the heterogeneity in these predictions across the distribution of SAT score percentiles. Each map, one for each level of SAT percentile, shades census tracts according to the probability that its “modal” simulated student will enroll in college within two-years of high school graduation. Each tract is coded blue for predicted probabilities above than 0.5—more likely than not to attend within two-years of earning a high school diploma—and red for those below. Darker shades show predictions that are statistically significant (\(p < 0.05\)). The maps in Fig. 1 show variation in the likelihood of enrollment, despite the fact that all synthetic students within each simulation are equally college ready in terms of their SAT scores. Simulation models suggest that even for synthetic students with SAT scores in the 90th percentile (bottom right map in Fig. 1), that is, those most likely to benefit from attending college and earning a degree, the odds of enrollment change depending on location.
When considering only those census tracts with probabilities of enrollment that are statistically significant, I find statistically significant differences in population characteristics between the bottom and top quartiles of predicted probability—those in which the synthetic student is least and most likely to enroll, respectively. Tracts in the bottom quartile of probable enrollment tend to have more persons of color, lower average educational attainment, and lower median income than those in the top quartile. Computing the distance to the nearest public, two-year, and public two-year institution for each census tract centroid, I find that tracts that produced non-enrollees in the simulations tend to be farther removed from the nearest institution. Figure 2 shows the differences in median distance to nearest college between tracts with non-enrollees and those with enrollees. Looking at the upper right-hand facet in which synthetic students were given the 50th percentile of SAT scores, the median distance to the nearest public two-year institution for non-enrollee tracts is around 12 miles. For enrollee tracts, the median distance is less than five miles. Results are similar across the range of SAT percentiles.
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Skinner, B.T. Choosing College in the 2000s: An Updated Analysis Using the Conditional Logistic Choice Model. Res High Educ 60, 153–183 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-018-9507-1
- College access
- College choice
- Conditional logistic choice model
- Geographic opportunity