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The University Selection Process: A Canadian Perspective

 

by Michael Roy Peirce, Ed.D.

Article Information

This article was published in INFO magazine in February, 1999 before eINFO was in existence. It summarizes the findings of Dr. Peirce's doctoral work on the university selection process including the types of variables which were considered by students. The article also contrasts the opinions of the students with their parents, guidance counsellors and the university admissions personnel.

            Each year nearly 60,000 secondary school students file applications through the Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC) in their quest for acceptance to their university of choice.  For many, it is their first major decision which will have long term effects on their development as individuals.  Students, whose personal goals are often undecided and who may lack experience, are often faced with high peer and parental expectations, as well as with a society in which the job market is changing at an incredible rate.  While a significant number of people may be involved in helping the students with that decision and a large variety of factors may be considered, the final choice is one which characteristically rests on the students' shoulders as they must live with the decision.
While research on the university selection process is available, it is primarily based on American students choosing U.S. institutions.  An excellent summary of the literature was written by Hossler, Braxton, and Coopersmith (1989).  Even though individual Canadian institutions have conducted market research, their samples are typically limited to those students who are applying to their institutions.  What follows is a summary of results found in a study of factors considered in the choice of university, conducted on a sample of Ontario private high school graduating students, their parents, counsellors and university admissions personnel.  The objectives of the study were to:  1) investigate the factors utilized by the students; 2) compare the opinions about the factors among the four groups; and 3) investigate variables influencing the factors.
The study was an adaptation of a survey conducted by Neil Sanders at the University of Washington in 1984.  Four groups were asked to rate the importance of thirty-five items considered in the university decision-making process.  174 student surveys, 174 parent surveys, 33 counsellor surveys and 55 admissions surveys were returned.  The data were analyzed using analysis of variance and linear regression techniques.  When considering the findings it is important to remember that the sample consisted a group of private school students who were from high socio-economic backgrounds with highly educated parents.  As such, the results may not accurately reflect the opinions of all university applicants.
The thirty-five survey items can be categorized using a model by Cain and McClintock (1984) which are summarized on Table 1.  On the basis of a review of the literature, Cain and McClintock found the information needs of students could be grouped into three general categories: college characteristics, interactive characteristics and independent assessments.  The college characteristics could be further subdivided into four categories:  a) Intellectual characteristics include factors such as the institutional type (public or private), the ideology or the underlying philosophy of a school, the program characteristics such as majors, program requirements, faculty contacts including class size, instructor qualifications, academic support mechanisms and interaction of faculty with students.  b) Social characteristics can be described in terms of demographic information such as population, male to female ratio, ethnic breakdown and economic diversity, as well as the structure and profile of social life and recreation.  c) Environmental characteristics include location and community size, and campus factors such as residential facilities, convenience and beauty.  d) Personal characteristics include rules, availability of student services such as libraries, health services, book stores, counselling and placement services, athletics and other extracurricular activities.  An additional category, e) information sources, was added to look at the importance which students placed on materials provided by the universities.  Interactive characteristics (f) include social attributes such as parental background, and student goals following graduation, the net cost of the education, details about admission, success rates and expectations and distance from home including accessibility.  Independent assessments (g) refer to attributes such as reputation as defined by accreditation, ranking, and prestige; student ratings including their opinions on teaching, housing, social life and atmosphere; success of graduates which can be indicated by data on job placement, graduate school placement and success in certification; and the preferences of others, including people such as parents, counsellors and peers.

Table 1  Categorization of survey items.

Category

Sub-category

Item number and description

1) University characteristics

a) Intellectual characteristics

a.1) availability of specific academic program
a.2) variety of courses available
a.9) graduate programs offered by the university
a.19) high school pre-requisite courses
a.34) student /faculty ratio
a.35) availability of remedial assistance

 

b) Social characteristics

b.3) student morale
b.8) size of university population
b.27) university social life
b.32) male/female ratio
b.33) ethnic mix

 

c) Environmental characteristics

c.10) campus setting
c.12) availability of housing
c.26) beauty of the campus

 

d) Personal characteristics

d.4) student support services
d.6) availability of career counselling
d.13) academic facilities
d.14) athletic facilities
d.15) athletic programs
d.16) extracurricular programs

 

e) Information sources

e.28) university publications
e.29) visit to the university
e.30) university presentations at high school

2) Interactive characteristics

 

f.5) career opportunities upon graduation
f.11) distance from home
f.17) cost of attendance
f.18) Scholarship or financial aid
f.21) high school academic performance requirements (cutoffs)

3) Independent assessment

 

g.7) reputation of the university
g.20) reputation of alumni
g.22) reputation of faculty
g.23) parental preference
g.24) peer opinions
g.25) guidance counsellor recommendations
g.31) university student opinions


  The rankings and ratings of the survey items are summarized on Table 2 and figure 1.The highest rated student items included career opportunities upon graduation, some factors relating to academic program and quality, and several items relating to quality of student life.  Preferred sources of information included visits to the university and university student opinions.  It is interesting that the top ten ranked items by students included all of the categories.  It seems students considered a variety of university characteristics and do not focus on a particular item.
While the students are the group of prime importance, it is interesting to look at differences among the four groups.  When looking at those items where differences between groups were statistically different, several trends emerged:
1) Students and parents placed greater importance on post-undergraduate options.  Both career opportunities upon graduation and graduate programs offered by the university were rated more important by students and parents than by counsellor and admissions personnel.  In an age where the media is focussing on high unemployment rates, it is not surprising to that future is on the minds of students and parents.  Perhaps counsellors and admissions personnel will need to provide more information about careers during the university selection process.  The difference in the rating of graduate programs may illustrate a different issue.  How offer do counsellors hear that students and parents believe that access to graduate programs improves if a student completes an undergraduate program at that university?  While admissions personnel and counsellors do their best to persuade families that this is not the case and that for many graduate programs, a different university may provide better opportunities, this may be an area where continued effort is required.
2) Parents were inclined to put greater importance on academic quality and reputation than students.  When comparing the survey items which parents rated with greater importance, nearly all were related to academic dimensions to the university or to the university`s reputation.  As all the items mentioning reputation were rated more important by parents, one might also ask where this information is attained.  Is it a result of their experiences or through conversations with colleagues?  If so, it may be somewhat dated.  On the other hand, perhaps they are reading MacLeans.  We can all hope this is not the case.

Table 2 Mean rating and ranking of survey items: Students, Parents, Counsellors and Admissions Personnel.

Item #

Item

Student

Parent

Counsellor

Admissions

f.5

Career opportunities upon graduation

1.6 (1)

1.5 (2)

2.3 (11)

2.4 (12)

a.1

Availability of specific academic program

1.6 (1)

1.4 (1)

1.4 (1)

1.5 (1)

d.13

Academic facilities

1.8 (3)

1.5 (2)

1.9 (4)

1.9 (3)

f.21

High school academic performance (Cutoffs)

1.9 (4)

2.2 (10)

1.7 (3)

2.1 (4)

c.12

Availability of housing

2.0 (5)

2.1 (9)

2.0 (5)

2.1 (4)

c.10

Campus setting

2.0 (5)

2.6 (15)

2.1 (7)

2.4 (14)

g.7

Reputation of the university

2.1 (7)

1.7 (4)

2.3 (11)

2.3 (10)

b.3

Student morale

2.1 (7)

2.0 (7)

2.2 (9)

2.5 (15)

e.29

Visit to the university

2.1 (7)

2.4 (13)

1.5 (2)

1.5 (1)

a.2

Variety of courses available

2.2 (10)

1.9 (5)

2.0 (5)

2.2 (7)

b.27

University social life

2.2 (10)

3.2 (27)

2.9 (21)

3.0 (22)

a.19

High school pre-requisite courses

2.3 (12)

2.4 (13)

2.1 (7)

2.2 (7)

a.34

Student/faculty ratio

2.4 (13)

2.0 (7)

2.5 (15)

2.3 (10)

g.31

University student opinions

2.4 (13)

2.6 (15)

2.4 (13)

2.2 (7)

d.16

Extra-curricular activities

2.4 (13)

2.8 (23)

2.8 (18)

2.7 (20)

g.22

Reputation of faculty

2.5 (16)

1.9 (5)

2.8 (18)

2.5 (15)

d.4

Student support services

2.6 (17)

2.2 (10)

2.6 (16)

2.4 (12)

d.6

Availability of career counselling

2.6 (17)

2.2 (10)

2.9 (21)

2.8 (21)

b.8

Size of student population

2.6 (17)

2.6 (15)

2.2 (9)

2.5 (15)

d.14

Athletic facilities

2.6 (17)

2.9 (25)

2.7 (17)

3.3 (27)

f.17

Cost of attendance

2.7 (21)

2.7 (18)

3.2 (27)

2.5 (15)

a.9

Graduate programs offered by the university

2.7 (21)

2.7 (18)

3.8 (34)

3.7 (34)

d.15

Athletic programs

2.9 (23)

3.2 (27)

3.0 (24)

3.4 (29)

c.26

Beauty of campus

2.9 (23)

3.6 (33)

3.3 (29)

3.5 (33)

e.30

University presentations at high school

3.0 (25)

2.7 (18)

2.4 (13)

2.6 (19)

g.25

Guidance counsellor recommendations

3.0 (25)

2.7 (18)

2.8 (18)

3.2 (25)

a.35

Availability of remedial assistance

3.0 (25)

2.7 (18)

3.1 (25)

3.0 (22)

f.18

Scholarship or financial aid

3.1 (28)

3.0 (26)

3.3 (29)

2.1 (4)

b.32

Male/female ratio

3.1 (28)

3.8 (35)

3.7 (33)

4.0 (35)

g.20

Reputation of alumni

3.3 (30)

2.8 (23)

3.4 (31)

3.2 (25)

f.11

Distance from home

3.3 (30)

3.4 (30)

2.9 (21)

3.0 (22)

e.28

University publications

3.4 (32)

3.4 (30)

3.5 (32)

3.3 (27)

g.23

Parental preference

3.5 (33)

3.2 (27)

3.2 (27)

3.4 (29)

g.24

Peer opinions

3.6 (34)

3.5 (32)

3.1 (25)

3.4 (29)

b.33

Ethnic mix

3.7 (35)

3.7 (34)

3.9 (35)

3.4 (29)

Graph 1
Figure 1:  Mean ratings of importance by student, parents, counsellors and admissions personnel.

  While admissions personnel and counsellors spend much time in an effort to persuade students to select a university which best suits their needs and not to focus purely on the name of the university, a greater focus may need to be directed towards the parents.  Surely a good fit is of greater importance than the institution`s name.  Currently is there is some very interesting research coming out of the United States illustrating that the items used in commercial ratings such as those in MacLeans, are not good predictors of quality whereas other items not even considered in commercial media rankings serve as excellent indicators of institutional quality.
3) Students tended to place greater importance on lifestyle items than parents.  It should not come as a surprise that students are interested in the quality of life at university.  The post-secondary experience provides a significant social as well as academic education thus it makes good sense to try to include social characteristics in the decision of which university to attend.  If a student is not happy, academic performance is hindered.  In a recent book, Astin (1993) outlines how critical the influence of the university environment can be on the overall educational experience of the student.  I believe the recent emphasis by universities of assisting students through the transition from high school to university is very important.  Many of the students leaving university before completion are not leaving due to academic failure but due to difficulties in making the transition a successful one.
4) High school performance requirements were considered more important by students and counsellors than by parents.  While universities are considering more information through the use of personal information forms, the "cut-off" average remains an important number for students and their parents to be concerned with.  An important role parents often play is to serve as a source of realistic feedback.  If parents view the high school performance requirements as less important, an important sounding board for the student may not be considering all the important variables in the admission process.  Counsellors and admissions personnel may need to focus some effort on educating parents about the university admissions process especially concerning the role of the "cutoff".
5) The visit to the university is considered more important by counsellors, admissions personnel and female students than by parents and male students.  If students' survival at university is at all dependent on the degree of compatibility, the visit could be considered an essential component in determining the success of their university careers.  While many counsellors and admissions personnel spend much time setting up and encouraging the university visit, it seems more effort may be needed persuading parents and male students of the importance of this information gathering exercise.
While few variables influenced the ratings of counsellors and admissions personnel, gender and academic achievement were found to be the demographic variables most often influencing ratings of students and parents.  For example, the importance of information sources varied by gender.  Females rated visits, university presentations at high school and university student opinions more important than their male counterparts.  The males placed greater importance on guidance counsellor recommendations and peer opinions.  These results may also point out that counsellors and admissions personnel need to adjust the methods of their presentation of facts and information to the student body.  This does not necessarily imply that counsellors should present information in a different way to a particular gender but may want to encourage that all these sources be available and utilized by their students.  Understanding that various groups prefer certain sources of information simply means that counsellors have a responsibility for making sure all those sources are available to provide accurate and up-to-date information.
The academic performance of the students was found to not only affect students' ratings but also parents' evaluation of variables considered in the university selection process.  A number of academically oriented items varied depending on the students' averages.  For availability of remedial assistance and high school performance requirements, as averages rose, the importance dropped.  Parents' ratings of remedial assistance followed the same pattern.  As averages rose, the importance of scholarship and reputation increased for students.  One would expect that these trends might occur.  For parents, however, a group of items related to student life dropped in importance as the students' averages rose.  Parents' ratings of the availability of housing, athletic facilities, athletic programs and extracurricular programs all dropped as their children's averages rose.  The importance of the university visit and the university presentations also decreased for parents as the students' averages rose.  Parents of higher achieving students may concentrate less on student life than parents of lower achieving students when considering universities.
Since changes were introduced into the Ontario secondary school credit system which allowed students to graduate in four years rather than the former five years, discussion among educators has often focussed on the effects of this change.  The current study provided a sample of both groups going through the same process and little was found to be influenced by the number of years the students took to complete high school.  Five year graduates were more concerned with male/female ratio than four year students while four year graduates felt parental preference was more important than five year students.  It is important to note that both these items were very low in the overall scale of importance; thus the influence of the number of years in secondary school on the students' rating of the items could be considered minimal.
While research similar to this study may provide some food for thought, much more work is needed.  If Canadians are interested in how students select their universities, more research based on Canadians is essential.  An assumption that U.S. based research is appropriate to describe the Canadian student may be very wrong.  While this study found U.S. models of university selection relevant when considering application to Canadian universities, some characteristics influencing the decision differed from the American research.  Studies involving a broader socio-economic sample are also needed.  A broader based sample may produce very different results than the current findings.

References

Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Cain, P. and McClintock, J. (1984). The ABC's of choice. Journal of College Admissions, 105, 15-21.

Hossler, D., Braxton, J., and Coopersmith, G. (1989). Understanding student college choice. In J.C. Smart, (ed.), Higher Education:  Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. 5. New York:  Agathon Press.

Sanders, N. (1990). Understanding seniors' college choices.  Journal of College Admissions, 126, 3-8.

Sanders, N. and Tarnal, J. (1984). Significant factors in the college selection process and perceptions regarding Washington State University:  A market research study of Washington high school seniors, parents and counsellors. Pullman, WA:  Washington State University.

 

 
 

   

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