Reputation, Cost, Location, Tradition: Big Factors when Alabama Students Choose a Home-State College

Year after year, Hoover High School sends large numbers of graduates off to Alabama public colleges, second only to Bob Jones High School in Madison City Schools. Cindy Bond, College and Career Specialist there for more than a decade, says that a college’s academic reputation is key to her students’ decisions. In recent years, though, cost has played a bigger role in the choices, she says.

Karin Bell has been counseling students for more than 30 years and currently works for College Admissions Made Possible, or CAMP, which provides free college admissions counseling to low-income and minority students. For her students, the first challenge is to understand what they need to consider, and when. Once students get that down, “kids are looking at price, scholarships, where they can afford to go. Those are big, big factors,” Bell said.

In some places, location seems to be the powerful influence. In recent years, high schools close to Jacksonville State sent large numbers of graduates to the University, records show. Alabama’s two-year colleges appear to have a geographic draw as well.

The numbers, and people who know the stories behind those numbers, paint a complicated picture of what’s involved when a high school graduate makes a big decision: Where will I go to college?

What the Numbers Show. On a Map.

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) collects information on where graduates of the state’s high schools enroll in Alabama public colleges during their freshman year.

Those in the graduating class of 2014 who chose Alabama colleges split enrollment between two- and four-year colleges in the same percentages the class of 2010 did: 53% chose two-year colleges, and 47% chose four-year colleges.

ACHE does not collect information on students who choose private colleges or out-of-state colleges or who ended their schooling. Numbers are not available on what the other half of graduates are choosing to do after high school.

The choices of central Alabama’s high school graduating classes of 2010 through 2014 are shown on the map below.

The map reveals where location patterns exist. Click around.

Choose a year and a college to see how many and what percentage of a high school’s graduates enrolled an in-state public college in the fall after graduation.

The list of colleges from which to choose includes Alabama’s 26 two-year and 13 four-year public collegesJ.F. Ingram State Technical College is not listed because all of its students are incarcerated. Athens State is included in the list, though it typically does not enroll freshmen. One high school did report a graduate entering Athens State as a freshman.

Hover over a high school’s marker to view the details for that school’s graduates for that year.

  Alabama Concerns Mirror National Research

The American Freshman: National Norms, is a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA collecting information about various aspects of a college freshman’s decisions and actions for nearly 50 years. The 2014 study revealed what every other study since 1966 has: The most important factor when choosing a college is the academic reputation of the school. Running second is whether the college offers financial aid and in third place, what the cost of attending that college will be. While no surveys of only Alabama’s graduates have been conducted, local college counselors agree that these three factors appear at the top of most students’ list of considerations.

In Hoover, Decisions Start Early

There are currently 672 seniors at Hoover High, according to school’s adviser Cindy Bond. Last year, of the 600 graduates, 381 enrolled in Alabama public colleges. Bond estimated around 180 attended colleges outside of Alabama. Nearly all of the students who enter Hoover High expect to go to college.

“They made a decision early on that they would go to college,” Bond said.

Bond said she does believe academic reputation is important to students and believes students at Hoover High have become more aware of college academic programs’ strengths and offerings. Some of that, she said, is due to students having a better idea of what they want to study in college, and also because “some colleges have done a good job distinguishing themselves (academically).” In each of the past five years, the top two Alabama public colleges chosen by Hoover High graduates are the University of Alabama and Auburn University, with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) coming in third.

Both Hoover High students and college recruiters benefit from the large campus, Bond said. Initial contact from a college representative gets students thinking. Because students met someone from a campus, they can ask follow-up questions that help narrow down their final choices, she said. Then, college visits give students the chance to try on the campus to see if it is a good fit.

If anything has changed, according to Bond, it is the emphasis on money. She said ten years ago, she wouldn’t presume to pry into a family’s financial situation. Now it’s one of the first things she asks parents to consider as their child begins a college search.

“Students are trying to stay open when it comes to considering colleges,” she said. They wait to hear about scholarship money and other forms of financial assistance before making their final enrollment decision.

It can really be hard for students who have their hearts set on a college only to have their parents tell them their first choice is out of reach financially. Bond said she’s seen it many times in recent years. Because of that, she counsels students to have additional choices and has seen an increase in the number of college applications students complete. 

“Nobody applies to only one college anymore,” she said, adding that the norm is for students to apply to three or more colleges. Two-year colleges are more affordable, making them attractive for families who need that affordability, Bond said.

She added that money made available through federal Pell Grants often covers the full tuition for students attending a two-year college in Alabama. The maximum Pell Grant award is $5,775 for the 2015-2016 award year. Pell Grant money does not have to be repaid.

In addition to academic reputation and cost, there are other things that matter, including what Bond calls a “comfort factor” which she said plays a large role in students’ decisions. A lot of the students Bond counsels say Auburn University or the University of Alabama is their top college choice when they first start their college search. That’s likely due to experiences of family and friends. Students have friends that went to a certain college, they saw those friends be successful, and that increases their level of comfort with that college.

2015-2016 Median Yearly Cost Tuition and Fees Alabama Public Colleges 4-year $9,358 2-year $4,320 Source: Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

  First-generation College-goers Face Extra Challenges

Karin Bell has been counseling students for more than thirty years and currently works for College Admissions Made Possible, or CAMP. CAMP provides free college admissions counseling to low-income and minority students, most of who are the first in their families to attend college. Bell said that being the first in the family to attend college comes with challenges, particularly when it comes to knowing what actions to take at what point in their high school careers.

“Knowing what they need to look for and when they need to start the process” is an initial challenge, Bell said.

Once students get that down, “kids are looking at price, scholarships, where they can afford to go. Those are big, big factors,” Bell said. Having access to a college counselor while a student is in high school is a big help, Bell said, “but a lot of the high schools in our area simply do not have it in the budget”.

That’s where Bell and CAMP step in. For first-generation college students, academic reputation is built through getting familiar with a college, Bell said, which is why taking students on college tours is one of CAMP’s priorities. Giving students an opportunity to “be on college campuses, see what they look like, and see what it feels likes to be down there. That gives students the opportunity to ask themselves if they would feel comfortable going to school there, working there.” Bell believes that level of familiarity with a campus can be a big part of a student’s decisions. Friends can be a big influence, too. “They want to go to school with their friends,” she said.

Where families have a strong college-going tradition and parents attended college in Alabama, students can develop a familiarity with that campus, maybe having attended football games there while growing up, Bell said. That can certainly contribute to a student’s choice of college, she said.

Bell also believes location is a big determining factor, but that can mean different things for different students. “Some want close to home. Others want out of the region,” she said.

Bell said the biggest overall change she has seen in her career is how many students now don’t consider their undergraduate degree to be the only degree they will seek. “They’re looking for med school, law school or a graduate program of some kind,” she said. Because of that, they may choose an in-state college, hoping to earn a scholarship to help pay for their undergraduate degree, choosing to save their money for a more prestigious graduate program.

Overall, Bell said, it’s really difficult to pinpoint one thing that rises to the top for graduates. “I think it’s so different for every kid, every family, and every situation.”

Patterns of Enrollment

BirminghamWatch took a look at ACHE’s data to see whether enrollment patterns were influenced by location and whether the data reveals any traditions of college-going in our coverage area. (Thirteen counties near Birmingham.) We found that both location and traditions appear to be influencing Central Alabama’s graduates, at least when it comes to Alabama public colleges.

One example is Mountain Brook High School, located in the wealthiest school district and city in Alabama. About 90% of Mountain Brook’s graduates who enrolled in an Alabama public college chose either Auburn University or the University of Alabama in each of the past five years, with more than 50% having chosen the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Another example is Vestavia Hills High School in Vestavia, just down the road from Mountain Brook High. More than 70% of Vestavia Hills’ graduates who attend a public Alabama college have enrolled at Auburn University and the University of Alabama in each of the past five years.

Another pattern shows consistently high percentages of graduates from Ramsay High School in Birmingham City Schools attending  UAB and Lawson State Community College.

Some high school college enrollment patterns are changing. Take, for example, Gardendale High School in Jefferson County schools. The class of 2014 chose four-year colleges in much higher numbers than in previous years.

The table below allows you to view enrollment percentages from 2010 through 2014 by school district. Patterns of enrollment are easily recognized by the darker shades of green, indicating a higher percentage, for the same two- and four-year public colleges.

Check out some of the trends, where some schools are sending larger percentages of their students to certain colleges than others.

(A chart in this presentation has been edited to reflect that figures are the median cost of tuition and fees in Alabama public colleges,not the average cost.)