Apr 3, 2017

Groundbreaking Study: Quality of Facilities Drives College Choice

Year after year, students say they base their college choice on factors like quality of the faculty, value of the education and safety of the campus.

There’s little reason to doubt that these are important and determinant factors. How students reach these conclusions, though, is critical for university administrators.

Although we’re in the Information Age, students aren’t necessarily cementing their opinions on professors and the value of a university’s degree from faculty bios or The Princeton Review.

The buildings on campus — not just the architecture, but the design and storytelling inside — influence how incoming students rate the faculty, the education and overall campus life.

Prospective students are using the library, the business building, the science building or the recreation facility to reach these conclusions, according to a pioneering study by Dr. Darin White, Chair of the Entrepreneurship, Management & Marketing Department in the Brock School of Business at Samford University.

“Facilities matter,” Dr. White said. “They matter a lot.”

In 2016, Advent commissioned The College Choice StudyTM, an independent statistical analysis of what drives today’s incoming freshmen to choose their universities.

In the study, Dr. White focused on how different facilities on a college campus impact the decisions that drive college choice.

Where other studies relied simply on self-reporting surveys, Dr. White examined the self-reported priorities through the lens of their actual school choice.

Students say that majors, cost of attendance, campus safety, value of the education and the value of the degree as a job-seeker are — statistically speaking — the most important factors in choosing a college. But self-reporting doesn’t tell us how students reach the conclusions that the college they pick fits into these parameters.

Lower on that list of determining factors are the quality of the academic and recreational facilities, the on-campus housing or the campus surroundings.

Yet by studying students’ actual behavior, Dr. White found that tangible elements such as facilities played a key role in shaping students’ perception of intangible elements such as the quality of the faculty, the value of the education and the safety of the campus. The latter, by the way, is the most important priority for female students when choosing a college.

Self-reported priorities can be unreliable, even the priorities that students consider to be most important when choosing a college. Dr. White’s study shows that students use tangible elements, like the facility, to reach conclusions about intangible factors.

For instance, consider a high school student touring a potential university. Like many students, she arrives with preconceived yet mostly unsupported beliefs about campus safety based on conversations with friends or visits to the school website.

On the campus tour, she first stops at an academic facility that impresses her. This newly conceived perception of the academic facility has a significant influence on her perception of the safety of the campus as a whole. This also happens as she notices recreational facilities, impressive campus surroundings and on-campus housing. By the time she ends the campus tour, four tangible college choice drivers have solidified her perception of campus safety.

Dr. White’s findings challenge all previous industry notions of how universities attract students and how students view universities. With this knowledge, we realize core truths that, fortunately, are actionable: First impressions matter. Emotional connection matters. Differentiation matters.

Advent commissioned Dr. White’s independent study and did not influence or oversee the study’s findings. Advent will continue to write about additional details in Dr. White’s study and implications in the academic facilities sector in the coming weeks and months.