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How high school seniors really pick the colleges they attend — new report

Caitlin Conn becomes tearful after personally being informed that she has been accepted into the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland on January 25, 2014. The University of Maryland took a Publisher’s Clearing House approach to notifying students accepted into the school. A bus with University of Maryland Admissions staff and students visited the homes of six students admitted as freshmen, welcoming them to the University of Maryland. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

May 1 is otherwise known as Decision Day, when high school seniors around the country who are planning to attend college in the fall are expected to finally commit to one. A new report details exactly how students actually make the decision, as explained in this post by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy of An expert on student financial aid, scholarships and student loans, he is  the author of four bestselling books about planning and paying for college. The findings in this report are based on the more than 1 million students who register annually at the website, which Kantrowitz says are well distributed around the country and are a significant subset of college-bound students.

By Mark Kantrowitz

College Decision Day (also known more formally as the National Candidates Reply Date) has arrived, and high school seniors nationwide must decide which offer of college admissions they will accept.

A new report sheds some light on the factors that influence college choice., a free web site that connects students with colleges and scholarships, analyzed college search behavior by class year and geographic location. More than one million students use Cappex to search for colleges each year. Cappex found some interesting patterns in how students’ college considerations change over the four years of high school.

During the freshman year in high school, name recognition seems to drive the list of the most popular schools. All of the Ivy League colleges except for Dartmouth are among the top 20 most popular colleges nationwide for high school freshmen.

As students approach the senior year in high school, the most selective institutions drop in popularity, perhaps because students become more realistic about their chances of admission.

Students also seem to prefer colleges that are closer to home when they reach the senior year in high school. The percentage of the top 20 colleges nationally that are in-state shifted from about a third (34 percent) as high school freshmen to almost half (47 percent) as high school seniors.

Public colleges become more prevalent than private non-profit colleges in the senior year. This trend appears not just in national college preference data, but also in regional data. Nationwide, Harvard University dropped from second to fifth and Yale University from fourth to sixteenth, while Princeton University no longer appears in the top 20.

The influence of college rankings on college preferences decreases in the junior and senior years in high school.  For example, the number of top ten most popular colleges that also appear in the U.S. News & World Report national university rankings decreases by four or five from the freshman year to the senior year in high school.

Geography also seems to play a role. California enrolls about 13 percent of the nation’s college-going population, so it is not surprising that several of the top twenty colleges for high school seniors would be located in California. But, at seven colleges in the top 20, California is over-represented, perhaps due to a combination of quality and affordability.  New York, Texas, Massachusetts and North Carolina are also over-represented, but not to the same extent as California.

The top 20 lists by region were also heavily influenced by location. For example, high school seniors in the far west (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) overwhelmingly preferred California colleges and universities, with just four of the top 20 colleges from outside California and only two colleges from outside the region. Similarly, students in other regions prefer colleges from within the region for 17 or 18 of the top 20 colleges.  The main exception is the Plains states, where only 13 of the top 20 are from the region. The colleges that are from outside the region tend to be colleges with a national reputation, such as Harvard University, Stanford University and New York University.

This chart shows the top college preference for high school seniors by state:

State Most Popular College
Alabama Auburn University
Alaska University of Alaska Anchorage
Arizona Arizona State University – Tempe
Arkansas University of Arkansas
California UCLA
Colorado University of Colorado Boulder
Connecticut University of Connecticut
Delaware University of Delaware
District of Columbia University of Maryland – College Park
Florida University of Central Florida
Georgia University of Georgia
Hawaii University of Hawaii at Manoa
Idaho Boise State University
Illinois University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
Indiana Indiana University – Bloomington
Iowa University of Iowa
Kansas Kansas State University
Kentucky University of Kentucky
Louisiana Louisiana State University
Maine University of Maine
Maryland University of Maryland – College Park
Massachusetts University of Massachusetts – Amherst
Michigan University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
Minnesota University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
Mississippi Mississippi State University
Missouri University of Missouri
Montana Montana State University
Nebraska University of Nebraska – Lincoln
Nevada University of Nevada – Las Vegas
New Hampshire University of New Hampshire
New Jersey Rutgers University – New Brunswick
New Mexico University of New Mexico
New York New York University
North Carolina North Carolina State University
North Dakota North Dakota State University
Ohio Ohio State University
Oklahoma University of Oklahoma – Norman
Oregon Oregon State University
Pennsylvania Penn State University
Rhode Island University of Rhode Island
South Carolina University of South Carolina – Columbia
South Dakota South Dakota State University
Tennessee The University of Tennessee – Knoxville
Texas University of Texas at Austin
Utah University of Utah
Vermont University of Vermont
Virginia University of Virginia
Washington University of Washington – Seattle
West Virginia West Virginia University
Wisconsin University of Wisconsin-Madison
Wyoming University of Wyoming