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Newswise — As elite colleges and universities continue to invest billions in academic and non-academic amenities, a new study finds that what students say they want in a college doesn’t always jell with which school they choose.

The research shows students are demanding expensive academic and non-academic amenities. However, when it comes to making the tuition deposit, reputation may matter more.

The study, conducted by economists Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University and Kevin Rask of Colorado College, examines how high-ability students from 2005-2012 decided where to enroll from among the schools where they were accepted. The research looks simultaneously at the importance of a number of college characteristics including cost, reputation, academic facilities and recreational facilities, and bases findings not just on students’ stated preferences but compares them with the actual choices they make.

“It’s important for colleges and universities to understand how the changing economic environment is impacting college choice in order to enroll the students they hope to attract,” says Griffith.

Cost versus reputation

So, how much do rock walls, lazy rivers, resort-like dorms and other country club amenities affect student choice? The answer is, it depends.

Students are more likely to report that cost matters in their college choice, but enrollment decisions show that most are not responding to price any more than they did prior to the recession.

“Students at the top income levels who do not need financial aid appear to be making final college choices based on reputation, particularly as measured by the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” says Griffith. “So, as much as academic and non-academic amenities move the needle on rankings, then the investments pay off.”

For high ability students receiving financial aid, the impact of expenditures on amenities is having a negative impact post-recession.

More students in the lowest-income, no-need category also report that cost is important in their decision than pre-recession. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, the proportion of middle and high-income students concerned with cost has increased.

As far as academic and non-academic amenities increase tuition costs without improving a school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, students in a wider range of income levels are finding them less attractive.

Jeffrey Selingo, editor at large at the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the newly released book “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” recently told NPR’s Morning Edition that while amenities are nice, many are over the top.

“You have climbing walls, which I think everybody has, but now you even have these lazy rivers,” Selingo said. “College presidents say that students and parents want this. But my contention is that if Harvard tomorrow decided to knock down all its residence halls and essentially build jail cells, do you think people would stop coming to Harvard? They'd probably keep going."

So which students are most influenced by amenities? Lowest income aided students receiving scholarships and grants that cover most, if not all, of their educational expenses and lowest ability, highest-income no-need students.

About the study

The data used for the research are from Admitted Student Questionnaires from two separate selective colleges over seven consecutive years. The survey asks students to report up to three colleges at the top of their choice set to which they were admitted, and which school they will attend that coming fall.

For each college listed, students were asked to report whether they received need-based grant aid, non-need based grant aid, work-study aid or a loan. Students were also asked how important a number of college characteristics were in their enrollment decisions

The study highlights the fine line colleges and universities walk between maintaining academic quality and reputation and trying to keep down costs.