Why would a student turn down her dream school?

Students rank cost high on list of concerns


When a student applies and receives an offer to the school of her dreams, she's clearly going to accept that offer and enroll—right?

Well, no. Not always.

A great deal of students end up turning down offers to their top-choice schools, and according to a recent study from Royall & Company, a division of EAB, 40% of these students do so on account of cost-related reasons. 

Learn more about the study

To conduct the study, Royall & Company analyzed 54,810 students at 92 institutions—both public and private—that were accepted to enroll in 2016. Of these students, about 11%—roughly 6,000—of these students who ended up declining offers to their top-choice schools. Researchers surveyed these students to ask which factors figured in to their decision to decline.

The reasons for declining, and the percentage of students who cited these reasons, are as follows:

  1. Cost of attendance, 18.6%;
  2. Campus environment, 9.4%;
  3. Location of the school, 9.3%
  4. Amount of financial aid received, 9.1%;
  5. Academic reputation, 8.1%;
  6. Proximity to home, 7.6%;
  7. Lack of specific major option, 6.6%;
  8. Merit-based scholarships, or lack thereof, 6.3%;
  9. Best value, 5.9%;
  10. Reputation in intended field of study, 4.9%;
  11. Size of the school and number of students, 3.8%;
  12. Athletic programs, 3.3%;
  13. Overall reputation, 3.0%;
  14. Legacy/family member ties, or lack therof, 1.8%;
  15. Amount of contact from the school following acceptance, 1.1%;
  16. Timing of a financial aid offer, 1.0%; and
  17. Amount of contact from the school before the application, 0.4%.

When combined, the four cost-related reasons for declining—cost of attendance, financial aid, merit-based scholarships, and the school's value—indicate that more than a third of the students who turned down their top-choice school did so on account of financial reasons.

Peter Farrell, managing director of Royall & Company, says the data confirms a trend that enrollment officers have been suspicious of since the Great Recession: Students are becoming increasingly cost-conscious.

Students shared how they really feel about college affordability

Cost concerns, the study shows, are prominent among students in various income brackets—not just those on the lower end of the spectrum. Though low-income students are more sensitive to cost concerns, wealthier students and extremely high performing students also turned down their top choice schools. This can occur in cases where, for instance, another school offers them more aid or scholarship money. The trend was also more or less consistent among minority and non-minority student groups.

So what can schools take away from the study?

Farrell says the most significant message is that "there's a group of students who are really interested in your college that you have the potential to lose if you're not doing a great job with both your marketing strategy and your aid strategy." If another school beats you to making an aid offer, or they award significantly more money, you could be in danger of losing that student (Seltzer, Inside Higher Ed, 3/23).

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