Toward a Theory of College Selection: a Model of College Search and Choice Behavior

Randall G. Chapman, University of Alberta
ABSTRACT - A behavioral theory of how students select a college is posited in this paper. This theory integrates aspects of search and choice into a comprehensive college selection theory. A menu of research questions is derived from the theory. These questions provide an extensive research agenda for the study of buyer behavior in the college selection domain,
[ to cite ]:
Randall G. Chapman (1986) ,"Toward a Theory of College Selection: a Model of College Search and Choice Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 246-250.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 246-250


Randall G. Chapman, University of Alberta

[The helpful comments of Larry H. Litten, Associate Director, Consortium On Financing Higher Education, and the referees are most gratefully acknowledged. The author is responsible for all remaining errors.]


A behavioral theory of how students select a college is posited in this paper. This theory integrates aspects of search and choice into a comprehensive college selection theory. A menu of research questions is derived from the theory. These questions provide an extensive research agenda for the study of buyer behavior in the college selection domain,


This paper proposes and describes a behavioral theory of how students select a college. Implicit in this theory is the notion that college selection may be viewed as a process which consists of a sequence of interrelated stages. It is posited that students move through this series of stages as they search for desirable colleges, search for and process information about colleges, and ultimately choose a specific college. This theory is also useful in establishing a framework within which past and current research efforts in the college selection domain may be classified. An immediate consequence of this theory is the development of a set of major research questions. These questions identify the central issues and dimensions of the college selection process, as well as providing a research agenda in this field.

The next section develops the details of the proposed behavioral theory of college selection. Then, the status of research on aspects of the college selection process is reviewed and assessed. Some concluding remarks complete this paper.


The five components of the college selection process model describe the stages through which students move along the path toward the ultimate selection of a college. Figure 1 contains a schematic diagram of the model. The stages are labeled as follows: Pre-Search Behavior; Search behavior; Application Decision; Choice Decision; and, Matriculation Decision.

The premise upon which this model is based is that college selection consists of search and choice components. Thus, it is important to define clearly the terms "search" and "choice" as used throughout this modeling effort.

Search refers to searching for the attribute values which characterize colleges. Relevant college attributes might include cost, academic quality, future career prospects and opportunities (upon graduation), quality of life while a student at the college, and related considerations that might be of interest to students in the ultimate college choice decision.

The search phase concludes with the application decision, when a student decides on the set of colleges to which formal applications for admission will be submitted. As noted below, some search activity is inevitable during the choice phase as well.

Choice refers to choosing among the colleges which have admitted a student. Search and choice are distinct but interrelated phases of the college selection process. However, it is useful to recognize the distinctiveness of these two stages in analyzing student behavior because different considerations arise at the search and choice stages.

A detailed description of each of the five stages of the college selection process follows.


Pre-search behavior begins when a student first recognizes the possible need and desirability of a college-level education. Parental influences may lead to such a realization on the part of the student well before the high school years. Thus, the pre-search stage may be very extended, covering many years. This length of time plus the difficulty in assessing when pre-search behavior actually first begins make this stage of the college selection process the most difficult to research.

Pre-search activities presumably involve an assessment of the costs and benefits associated with attending college in general (and perhaps certain college types, in particular), plus a corresponding assessment of the costs and benefits of alternative non-college post-high school options.

Given the recognition of the possible need for a college-level education, a student implicitly and perhaps continuously scans a range of possible information sources to learn about the availability of information sources, their content, and some information about various college options and perhaps even specific colleges.

Research on pre-search behavior would focus primarily on the college-going decision of students: the decision of whether higher education should be pursued at all. The subsequent stage in the college selection process, search, addresses issues related to the initial phases of choosing a particular college option.

College-going behavior might be studied by examining higher education participation rates of various market sub-groups. A range of demographic variables (for example, parental education and income levels, socioeconomic status, gender, ethnic group membership, religious affiliation, and the like) might be useful predictors of college-going behavior. However, empirical evidence in the marketing segmentation area suggests that other things -- such as personal attitudes and values toward higher education correlates - would be even stronger predictors of college-going tendencies.



Key research questions with regard to the pre-search phase include the following:

(PS1) When does pre-search begin? When does a student first come to realize the possible value of a college-level education?

(PS2) Who is consulted about educational and career options, with what frequency and what effect?

(PS3) To what extent do family circumstances, lifestyle, personal values, and culture influence a student's perceptions of the value of a college education in general, and of the value of specific college options (either colleges or types of colleges [e g., public vs. private]) in particular?

Due to the difficulty in assessing when pre-search begins, research on pre-search may be limited to attempting to measure the extent to which factors such as family circumstances, lifestyle, personal values, and culture influence subsequent stages of the college selection process. The assumption that these fundamental determinants of college selection behavior are exogenously determined for the purposes of studying the rest of the college selection process implies that they are beyond the immediate influence of any particular college.

Search Behavior

For a student to reach the search behavior phase of the college selection process, the pursuit of a college-level education must have been concluded to be a viable and desirable step. Search behavior presumably begins in earnest sometime during a student's high school years.

The search behavior stage is characterized by extensive and active acquisition of information about possible college alternatives. knowledgeable "others" are presumably consulted with great frequency and in depth. Knowledgeable "others" might include high school teachers, high school guidance-counselors, family members and relatives, family friends, college alumni, and acquaintances attending particular colleges. Students typically write to a number of colleges to request descriptive information, such as college catalogs and relevant brochures. Students receive unsolicited direct mail from individual colleges. Some actual visits to colleges occur. The search phase involves active search, rather than the relatively passive search-related activities that might be found in most consumer nondurable goods settings. College selection is an important milestone in a student's life, and extensive high-involvement search efforts are to be expected.

It is postulated that information search efforts are directed toward determining the attributes possessed by various college alternatives. Students are presumably interested in learning about a college's costs and benefits. Among the relevant benefits are the college's academic dimensions, future career prospects and opportunities (upon graduation), and its quality of life. Chapman and Litten (1984) describe these as consumption and investment benefits. A variety of information sources are tapped by students so that they may form a belief about what life would be like at specific colleges. A potentially wide range of college alternatives are presumably examined during the search phase, although the number of colleges given serious consideration may be only a relative handful.

Search may also entail learning about and identifying the "right" attributes to consider. (The "right" attributes are not expected to be the same for all students, although some attributes are likely to be commonly seen as relevant to many students.) This possibility introduces considerable complexity into efforts to model the college selection process. The typical assumptions of stable and known weights (in a multiattribute utility model context), weights "known" to the individual student (but "unknown" to the researcher), thus, may not be tenable in the college selection process.

Thus, the search stage involves considerable complexity for the student -- extensive (generating college alternatives) and intensive (assessing where specific colleges lie in an attribute-space sense) search efforts are required (Chapman and Litten 1984), as well as efforts directed to identifying the salient attributes.

At some point, search stops and the student chooses a set of colleges to which applications are to be submitted. Search terminates presumably because the cost of further search (in terms of time, money, and effort) is not thought to materially reduce the uncertainty with regard to where the colleges' attributes really lie, or to identify any significantly more promising college alternatives than are already known to the student.

Some relevant research questions associated with the search phase include the following:

(S1) How extensive is search? How many colleges are considered at various times during the search process? Row many colleges are given serious consideration? How do personal circumstances, attitudes, values, and demographics of the student (and his/her parents) influence the extent of search?

(S2) What information sources are consulted, with what frequency and what influence, and in what order? What is the content of the information received from various sources? How do these information sources vary with a student's personal circumstances, attitudes, values, and academic area of interest? Are sources used for different purposes? Are sources viewed with different degrees of credibility with regard to specific information dimensions?

(S3) What activities occur during search? How much literature is accumulated? What kinds of students tend to make actual campus visits? What happens during campus visits? Bow do campus visits influence a student's perceptions about a college?

(S4) What college attributes are viewed as being salient at the beginning of search? What college attributes are viewed as being salient at the end of the search process? How can changes in attribute saliency be accounted for?

(S5) What are the specific indicators that students use in order to judge colleges on the attributes of importance?

(S6) What colleges are students aware of at the beginning of search? Why are students aware of such colleges? What additional colleges do students become aware of as search progresses? What accounts for these "new" colleges entering the awareness set?

(S7) Do perceptions about college attributes become more precise as search progresses? Do "halo" effects exist? If so, across which attribute subsets do "halo" effects exist?

(S8) What forms of decision rules are used by students to evaluate specific college alternatives? To what extent are trade-offs recognized and dealt with? To what extent are simple cut-off rules (heuristics) used to simplify the decision making task, and to reduce the complexity of the search process by focusing attention (and associated information processing and search efforts) on manageable number of college alternatives?

An ideal research program to study search behavior would be longitudinal in nature. Students would be contacted at several points during the search process, near the beginning and at the end, at a minimum. This research design would allow for questions related to changes in attitudes, values, knowledge, awareness, preferences, and perceptions about individual college options to be assessed. A one-shot retrospective study, presumably conducted at or near the end of the search process, would have considerable difficulty in achieving reliable answers to all of these research questions due to inevitable lapses in memory, faulty recall, perceptual distortions, self-rationalizations, and halo effects.

Application Decision

Search behavior ends when a student decides to apply to a set of colleges. By definition, the application set consists of those colleges to which a student submits an application for admission. At this point, the pursuit of a college-level education is serious and the number of college alternatives has been narrowed down to a few.

Students are most likely to apply to colleges in which they are interested and to which they are likely to be admitted. Thus, a student's expectations as to the probability of admission are relevant here. In addition, it is presumed that only colleges viewed as being at least minimally acceptable on all major dimensions are included in the application set. One area in which students lack full information at the application decision stage is financial aid. Thus, students may apply to colleges which might be too expensive for them, unless sufficient aid is ultimately forthcoming with the offer of admission.

The notion of a "safe" or "backup" college merits special attention. Students may apply to a fairly low preference but perceived high-probability-of-admission college (often the local public institution) Just to ensure that at least one positive admission decision is forthcoming.

The key research questions with regard to the application decision phase of the college selection process include:

(A1) To what extent do expectations as to admissions probabilities enter into students' decisions as to which colleges will be included in the application set?

(A2) How large are application sets? "That factors (demographic, attitudinal, and other) account for variations in the size of application sets?

(A3) To what extent is "portfolio decision making" (involving attempts to reduce and diversify risk) evident in the formation of college application sets? To what extent do students apply to "safe" or "backup" colleges, colleges in which there is a high probability of being admitted, so that they are assured of admission to at least one college?

(A4) What more-or-less binding constraints (monetary, geographical, and "buying jointness" [having someone else to consider]) exist that influence the application set formation decision?

(A5) Which colleges were actively considered at the search stage but not ultimately included in the application set? Why?

(A6) What are the determining factors in a student's initial preference ranking/rating of colleges to which applications have been submitted?

(A7) How do students perceive the standing of each of their college application set alternatives on each of the relevant dimensions? To what extent are these perceptions consistent with the actual (objectively determined) characteristics of the colleges? How can the differences between perceived and actual characteristics be accounted for?

Research on the application decision can be conducted by contacting students at any time after this stage has been reached. Ideally, contact would be made after the application decision has been made by the student, but before any of the colleges in the student's application set have made their admission and financial aid decisions.

After a student submits applications, the colleges must then make their admissions and financial aid decisions. Subsequently, the outcome of these decisions must be communicated to the students:

Choice Decision

By definition, the choice set consists of all those colleges to which a student is admitted. Note that this is another point where some uncertainty enters into the college selection process - namely, the uncertainty with regard to whether a student will be admitted to a college. Students may form expectations about the probability of admission to particular colleges, but they cannot be certain of admission. This is especially true for selective colleges where the number of applications from minimally qualified students may exceed the number of available freshmen slots by factors of two to five. Indeed, some highly selective colleges receive more applications from straight-A students than there are available slots!

At the choice decision phase, the student is presumed to possess relatively complete information on all relevant college attributes, since the student is informed of the availability of financial aid amounts and mix (the allocation of financial aid between grants/scholarships, loans, and part-time jobs). However, there may be some further extended search along the "determinant attributes" (Alpert 1971), those college attributes which will really make a difference in the college choice process. This may involve campus visits, for example. Search activity during this stage is intensive only, being concerned with improving a student's information stockpile as to where the colleges in the choice set lie in an attribute-space sense.

The choice process presumably involves a trade-off among the multiattribute college alternatives in the choice set. (Cut-off heuristics may also be used to simplify the choice process, especially for students with large choice sets. Such heuristics presumably are of greater usefulness during the search phase, to reduce the universe of all possible colleges down to a manageable number, from information search and processing perspectives.) The need for trade-offs exist because any single college may not be dominant on each of the student t S relevant attributes. Also, the homogenizing nature of the application decision -- which suggests that all colleges to which applications are submitted must be judged (implicitly, at least) to be minimally satisfactory on all major dimensions -- suggests that modeling the student decision maker as weighing the relative merits of each college alternative, in a compensatory fashion, would be a reasonable approach.

The choice decision phase normally ends with the selection of a specific college to attend. However, some students will end the choice decision stage by deciding to defer admission to a later time, perhaps because the student was not admitted to a highly preferred first choice college, or because financial considerations or some other change (since the application decision stage) in the student's personal life makes it impossible to pursue a college education at this point in time.

Key research questions with regard to the choice decision phase include the following:

(C1) Row to students perceive the standing of each of their college choice set alternatives on each of the relevant dimensions? To what extent are these perceptions consistent with the actual (objectively determined) characteristics of the colleges? How can the differences between perceived and actual characteristics be accounted for?

(C2) What are the relative importances of various factors in the choice process? how do these relative importances vary across students? Are there systematic differences in the relative importances that may be explainable by personal circumstances, attitudes, values, and demographic characteristics of the student (and his/her parents)?

(C3) To what extent are students' expectations as to financial aid awards met? How accurate are students at predicting financial aid packages?

(C4) What search behavior occurs after the choice set is formed? Do campus visits occur? If yes, with what effect?

(C5) How consistent are a student's final preference ranking/rating of colleges and the original preference ranking/rating at the application formation set decision stage? How can changes in these two rankings/ratings be explained?

(C6) What more-or-less binding constraints (monetary, geographical, and "buying jointness" [having someone else to consider]) exist that influence the college choice decision?

Although not strictly a college selection behavior phenomenon, an additional research question related to how specific colleges (and college types) make admissions and financial aid decisions might be noted.

Many of these research questions are answerable with a one-shot post-choice decision survey. However, issues related to perceptions and expectations require two-stage research efforts, involving questioning at the later part of the search stage (or after the application decision has been made) and again after the choice decision has been made. Significant distortions in reports of perceptions and expectations may occur, however, in a one-shot post-choice survey. It is crucial that the post-choice survey research effort be conducted well before the actual matriculation point, both to reduce memory losses and also to avoid major problems associated with self-reported rationalizations of past actions.

Matriculation Decision

For most students, the college choice decision will be made late in the Spring, with actual matriculation to the chosen college not occurring until the Fall. For some students, the initial college selected in the Spring will not be the college actually attended in the Fall. Changed family or personal circumstances (such as significant changes in financial situation) and unexpected events may alter the original choice decision. A student who was wait-listed with a highly preferred college may renege on the initial college selected if the highly preferred college subsequently admits the student.

This "no-show" problem creates considerable problems for colleges, as it can easily cascade down from highly selective to successively less selective institutions, as the colleges tap their wait-list pools to fill their respective classes. Standard institutional practice in admissions is to require a deposit along with the acceptance of admission. However, these deposits are normally not substantial (a $100-$200 range is common), so the cost of forfeiting such a deposit to attend a much more preferred college alternative is not a major hurdle for many students.

Relevant research questions with regard to the matriculation decision include the following:

(M1) How large is the "now-show" problem?

(M2) Why do some students become "no-shows"? To what extent is being offered late admission (i.e., coming off a wait-list) by a preferred college a contributing factor to the "now-show" problem? To what extent are changes in financial aid packages a contributing factor to the "no-show" problem?

(M3) To what extent can students predict the likelihood of their being "no-shows"? Is "no show" behavior planned at the time of the original college choice decision?

The investigation of this "no-show" problem is only possible with a survey of students after they have actually physically enrolled in colleges in the Fall.


Existing published research on the college selection process has focused largely on the college choice stage. Major studies of college choice behavior include Chapman (1979, 1985), Chapman and Staelin (1982), Manski and Wise (1983), Punj and Staelin (1978), Radner and Miller (1975), and Tierney (1980).

While less plentiful, some empirical research exists in the other areas, although it primarily focuses on student demographics as determinants of behavior. In the pre-search area, studies of college-going behavior based on students' demographic backgrounds are relatively numerous. For example, see Anderson, Bowman, and Tinto (1972), Christensen, Melder, and Weisbrod (1975), Manski and Wise (1983), and Radner and Miller (1975). In the search behavior area, see Litten and Brodigan (1982) for an example of the sources of information that students report they use. Spies (1973) focused some attention on application decision behavior. Hise and Smith (1977) report the results of an experiment to attempt to reduce "no-chow" behavior.

The disproportionate emphasis that researchers have placed on studying the college choice phase is no doubt due to the relatively low costs with which such research efforts may be conducted. A one-shot post-choice retrospective survey is typically employed in college choice studies. Also, in studying choice, the population may be defined conveniently to include only students who have already applied to a particular college, thus yielding large savings on survey administration costs. (Of course, such a-choice-based sample will have associated with it some restrictions regarding the possibilities of generalization beyond the college's applicant pool.)

While retrospective studies of choice may represent reasonable compromises between cost and data accuracy/ generalization considerations, search behavior cannot be studied successfully with retrospective study designs. Also, the study of search would require a much larger population of students. The search behavior stage can potentially encompass a wide range of activities occurring over many months. A single survey research questionnaire administered to students well after the search stage is over will be ineffective and quite possibly misleading due to students faulty recall, halo effects, cognitive dissonance, and selective perception and retention. The study of search behavior requires intervention during the search process, ideally at several points with a longitudinal research design.

Unfortunately, much has already happened by the time students have reached the application decision stage. Researchers and, by inference, college admissions decision makers could be mislead by focusing only on the application and choice behavior of students. For example, students who perceive a college to be too expensive will not presumably apply to such a college in the first instance. Much of the substance of the college selection process is still hidden behind/before the application decision.

It is, of course, not surprising that initial research efforts would focus on the relatively easier-to-investigate choice behavior stage. However, the large research gains in the future seem likely to occur only with sustained efforts devoted to the search and pre-search behavior phases of the college selection process, perhaps in combination with analyzing application and choice decisions of students simultaneously.


The model proposed in this paper represents a starting point to the complete study of college selection. In addition to attempting to organize the college selection process into a series of researchable stages, the research questions developed provide an extensive research agenda for buyer behavior scholars and applied researchers interested in buyer behavior in higher education. Marketing scientists may find the college selection process to be especially interesting due to its inherent -complexity and its high stakes nature. There are few other buying processes where the stakes are higher; this is an extreme example of high involvement buying decision making.

This model is proposed as an organizing framework for the study of college selection. The model has a certain rigidity to it, in that it suggests that every student progresses through the specified stages in a "top-down" fashion. This is, of course, consistent with the underlying premise that college selection is a high stakes high involvement buying process. Naturally, the worth of this model of college selection can only be gauged with extensive empirical testing. Certainly, not every student will go through all of the proposed stages. (Some may have "inherited" application sets, for example, corresponding to parents' colleges.) Indeed, those students who do not follow the form of this model may be especially interesting. Alternative models no doubt exist, but this stagewise buying model appears to be a useful starting point for the study of the complete process of college selection.

In addition to academic research interest, the research questions developed in this paper are of paramount importance to the relevant managers in higher educational institutions. Admissions, financial aid, and college planning officials need answers to these questions to cope with the increasingly competitive nature of the college selection process. Thus, these research questions appear to have both scholarly and managerial interest.


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