Why Do Students Turn Down their First-Choice Colleges?

on March 29, 2017

About 11 percent of students get into their first-choice colleges but enroll at another college, according to a survey by EAB. About two-fifths of these students cited college costs and financial aid as the reason why they didn’t enroll at their first choice college. Low-income students are much more likely to cite college affordability as the reason for not attending their first-choice college than high-income students.


The four reasons related to college costs and financial aid included the cost of attendance (18.6 percent), financial aid (9.1 percent), merit scholarships (6.3 percent) and best value (5.9 percent), a total of 39.9 percent.


The results were similar when disaggregated by SAT, race and control of institution.


The most significant differences occurred when students were grouped according to ability to pay. Students with a lower expected family contribution (EFC) were more likely to cite reasons related to cost and financial aid when asked why they were not enrolled at the first-choice college. More than four-fifths (41 percent) of students with a zero EFC cited cost-related reasons, compared with only a quarter (25 percent) of students with an EFC or 40,000 or more.


This data suggests that colleges might be more successful in recruiting low-income students if they offered them more financial aid, especially grants.


The EAB results are similar to those previously demonstrated by the American Freshman surveys by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. In 2015, 75.5 percent of first-year students were accepted to their first-choice college, but only 58.9 percent were enrolled at their first-choice college, meaning that 16.6 percent had turned down their first-choice college.


Among students who were not enrolled at their first-choice college, reasons cited as very important included being offered financial aid by the college where they enrolled (47.1 percent), cost of attendance (45.2 percent), not being able to afford their first-choice college (13.0 percent) and not being offered aid by their first-choice college (10.0 percent). The UCLA survey also indicated that more than half of first-generation students cited costs as the reason why they were not enrolled at their first-choice college.


The EAB surveys do not involve a nationally representative sample of college freshmen, unlike the UCLA surveys.


Reason for Not Attending

First-Choice College

Percent of


Cost of attendance


Campus environment


Location of the school


The financial aid I received


Academic reputation


Proximity to home


Offered the major I wanted


The merit-based scholarship I received


Best value


Reputation in my intended field of study


The size of the school/number of students


Athletic programs


Overall Reputation


Legacy/family member attended the school


Amount of contact after admission


Timing of my financial aid award


Amount of contact before application


The school is coeducational


Source: EAB

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