Differences in college choice factors among freshmen student-athletes

Differences in college choice factors among freshmen student-athletes

Garbert, Trent E


This paper reports on a study of college choice factors among freshmen student-athletes. The study surveyed 246 first-time, freshmen student-athletes from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Divisions I and II and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Sixty-nine respondents were female and 177 were male. Eighty-eight were non-scholarship and 158 were on some type of athletic assistance. All of the students were academically eligible for competition.The student-athletes were selected from five universities in the mid-south. All of the schools were baccalaureate-granting institutions with at least some graduate programs. None were historically black colleges. A 30-item Student-Athlete College Choice Profile Scale was used to measure the reported differences on college choice factors. Overall, the student athlete’s college choice decision was influenced most by the college head coach variable. Division I student-athletes identified the academic support services factor as most important while Division II athletes considered the location of the school as the most important factor. Studentathletes who competed at the NAIA level reported the college head coach factor as the most influential in the college choice process. Additionally, the results from this study suggest those college choice factors which mattered most to male athletes also were a priority to female student-athletes. Results are presented and the implications for future research, departmental programming and institutional effectiveness are discussed.


The college choice process for high school student-athletes continues to be one the most chronicled, controversial and emotional processes associated with intercollegiate and interscholastic sport. Each year nearly 2.5 million new students enter higher education. (Education Statistics, 1996). For the 1995-96 school year, nearly 250,000 first-time college freshmen continued their participation in sport by competing at the NCAA, NAIA or the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) level (NCAA Participation Study, 1997). While a significant body of literature exists on the factors surrounding college choice, surprisingly little is known about the factors related to college choice among freshmen student-athletes except for a handful of studies (Gowler, 1971; Mathes and Gurney 1985; Slother 1976). With intense pressure at most levels of sport to recruit the very best athlete, produce winning seasons, retain and graduate student-athletes, the recruitment process for the student-athlete may be more critical than ever before (Hossler & Gallagher, 1987; Sevier, 1993; Weiler,

1996). The need to understand the factors influencing the college choice decisions of intercollegiate athletes has never been greater.

Factors Influencing General Freshmen Population

Martin and Dixon (1991) synthesized the literature and described four basic types of influences that effect the college choice process. The influences included reputation of academic programs, social climate, cost and location, and influences of others (e.g. parents, friends, counselors and recruiters). The influences described above are often viewed as general categories affecting the general student body, rather than demonstrating a focus on select groups of students. In their summary, Martin and Dixon (1991) suggested that colleges must understand the primary factors influencing student college choice if they hope to effectively influence college choice decisions.

Sevier (1991) found that reputation of the college, availability of major, total cost of attending college, advice of a religious leader, and availability of financial aid were factors influencing college choice. Sevier also pointed out that while certain items may not be identified as important by the student when completing an initial survey, colleges should not dismiss the items because they may become important in the future.

Although a growing body of literature on the college choice decisions of undergraduate students exist, the existing literature is very limited in its ability to provide a clear and comprehensive understanding of the college choice decisions of intercollegiate athletes. In light of increasing competition for student-athletes, brought about by scholarship reductions and financial pressures associated with intercollegiate sport, it is surprising that minimal scholarly attention has been devoted to the measurement of factors related to college choice among freshmen student-athletes by institutional type. This study examines the factors influencing college choice among firsttime, freshmen student-athletes. The purposes of this study were three-fold: a) to expand student-athlete research into the broader research on student college choice; b) to initiate an exploration of factors influencing the college choice decision among freshmen student-athletes; and c) to develop college choice profiles by institutional type.



A sample of 246 freshmen student-athletes participated in the current study. The students were selected from five universities in the mid-south. The five universities were selected based on institutional differences, which included: a) size (large, medium and small), b) private and public institutions, and c) church affiliated vs. non-church affiliated. All of the schools were baccalaureate-granting institutions with at least some graduate programs. None were historically black colleges. Schools that participated in the study competed at either the NCAA Division I, IT or NAIA level.

Of the 246 freshmen student-athletes participating in the study, 69 were female and 177 were male. All of the participants were entering college as first-time freshmen attending one of the five universities selected for the study.

The Student-Athlete College Choice Profile was used to explore student choice. Many of the items chosen for our instrument were developed from past college choice research (Hamrick & Hossler, 1996; Kalho, 1996). However, much of the previous research did not identify categories specifically related to college athletics; therefore, we surveyed athletic department personnel from various universities to assist with identifying categories specific to our population. In all, 23 items exploring 23 college choice factors were included on the instrument, along with six items measuring background characteristics. A five-point Likert-type scale response format was used for the 23 college choice items with a response of “1” indicating no influence, while a “5” indicated a great deal of influence. A Cronbach alpha was run on all the variables that produced an overall internal consistency reliability score of .84.


Surveys were distributed to the participants during the fall orientation portion of their athletic/college program. Permission to administer the surveys was obtained through the administrative office responsible for the oversight of the respective athletic programs. Students were advised that the information they provided would be kept confidential and that a candid response to all questionnaire items was appropriate.


The focus of this study is to identify differences and similarities among factors that influence student-athletes’ choice of college by institutional type, sport type, scholarship status, gender and race . Mean scores are used to rank order the 23 college choice variables from least to most important in making the college choice selection (Table 1).

Of the 10 most influential variables, five are related to athletic participation influences (e.g., head coach, sports tradition) and five are related to the factors summarized in Martin and Dixon’s (1991) review of the literature (e.g., location, significant others).

Division I student-athletes identify academic support services as the single most important factor related to college choice. However, four of the top five mean scores for Division I athletes are related to athletic participation (Table 2). Division II student-athletes identify location of the school as the single most important variable related to college choice and only two of the top six factors based on mean scores are related to athletic participation (Table 2). Athletes at the NAIA level identify the head coach as the single most important variable related to college choice. For the NAIA student athlete, two of the top seven factors are related to athletic participation (Table 2).

Male and female athletes are influenced by college choice factors in very similar ways. Both men and women identify the head coach as the single most important factor among the college choice variables. The “opportunity to play immediately” variable is the third most important factor for both men and women. For both groups only two of the top five factors are related to athletic participation (Table 3). Athletes are divided into two categories-revenue and nonrevenue. The revenue sports category include football and men’s and women’s basketball. Non-revenue sports include all others from the sample. Both groups identify the “head coach” and “location of the school” variables as the two most important college choice factors. The most notable difference appears to be the value placed on the “school’s sports tradition” by the revenue-generating respondents (Table 4).

White student-athletes identify “location of the school” as the most important factor while non-white athletes identify “head coach” as the top factor related to college choice. However, “academic degree programs, ” “opportunity to play immediately,” and “academic support services” are identified in the top five factors for both groups (Table 5). Full and partial athletic scholarship recipients indicate that the “head coach variable” is the single most important factor for college choice. Full athletic scholarship recipients identify the “opportunity to play” as the second most important factor while the partial athletic scholarship recipients identify the “opportunity to play” as the third most important factor. Additionally, the factor “position coach” is rated high by full scholarship recipients. The “location of the school” variable rates highest among all non-athletic scholarship respondents. In fact, the “opportunity to play” variable is the only athletic participation factor listed among the top seven choices for this cohort (Table 6).


A review of literature suggests general students’ college choice decision is influenced by four basic types of influences: influence of others, cost and location, social climate, and academic program. Yet, little systematic effort has investigated those types of influences, combined with athletic environment factors, for the entering student-athlete.

Overall student-athletes in this survey identify college choice influences in a very similar fashion to the general student body as reflected in current literature. Academic and degree programs and services, influence of others and location of school are ranked in the top five college choice factors by student-athletes. All three influences are commonly found in the literature for the general student body (Martin and Dixon, 1991). Additionally, the intercollegiate athlete is influenced by athletic environment factors which include the influence of their next head coach, the opportunity to play immediately, athletic traditions and athletic facilities. These results suggest that the contemporary student-athlete will make his or her college choice decision with equitable consideration given to athletic and non-athletic factors. However, some very distinct college choice patterns develop when the subjects’ responses are analyzed by division of competition.

This study suggests college choice decisions made by freshmen student-athletes at the Division I level are influenced more by athletic environment factors and less by social and academic college factors. This should come as no surprise to the coaches and administrators who frequently recruit Division I student-athletes. Perhaps a somewhat less anticipated result is the value Division I athletes place on the influence of academic support services and degree programs. These results clearly indicate that in today’s climate, Division I schools are unlikely to maximize their recruitment efforts without significant evidence of their commitment to graduating their elite studentathletes.

Division II and NAIA student-athletes place a greater value on college environment factors (non-athletic) in the college choice profile when compared to NCAA Division I athletes. A careful review of those profiles suggest that nonDivision I athletic administrators and coaches should build a recruitment strategy designed to emphasize a balance of athletic and non-athletic factors in the college choice process.

Men and women student-athletes in the survey view the choice factors in nearly identical terms. The top five factors for both groups and the mean range for those factors show little variation. These results seem to indicate an attitudinal and perceptive shift in the way female athletes view the selection process, and to some extent, represent a shift in women’s athletics to a model more closely aligned with men’s sports.

A generation ago coaches and athletic administrators generally believed that women athletes were influenced in the college choice process to a greater degree by issues such as personal relationships (peers, high school counselors), family concerns and social climate. Today, the female athlete appears to be largely influenced also by such factors as the chance to play immediately, academic support services and degree programs, and the head coach.

The fact that student-athletes who self-identified as athletic scholarship recipients are influenced in a greater way by the athletic factors than were the non-scholarship recipients is predictable. It is reasonable to assume that athletic scholarship recipients have a greater stake in the recruitment and college choice process than those student-athletes who do not receive a grant-in-aid and should be influenced in a greater way by the athletic factors.

The modern day intercollegiate athlete represents a unique population. For many of these young people, powerful and unique forces play an integral part in the college choice process. Consequently, it is imperative that athletic and university administrators, coaches, parents, and others be more informed on the influences surrounding college choice.

Although caution should be exercised in generalizing from these findings in light of the results regarding the differences in profiles by institutional type, individuals responsible for the recruitment of intercollegiate student-athletes should begin to gain a better understanding of the relationship between athletic and non-athletic factors in the college choice process. Also, the recruitment of women athletes is undergoing an incredible transition. The results from this study generally suggest that those factors that matter most to male athletes also matter greatly to female athletes.

Convincing an athlete to attend a particular institution brings with it an obligation to do more than provide scholarships, uniforms and pep rallies. Understanding student needs, influences and expectations should be both the goal and duty of school officials.

These findings clearly suggest that while some differences in college choice factors do exist by institutional type, scholarship type, sport type, gender, etc., athleltic recruiters must be prepared to present a balanced prospectus of the intercollegiate student-althlete experience. This research should assist those most responsible for the recruitment of student-athletes. We hope that a clearer, empirically-based collection of information on college choice will facilitate the recruitment process.


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Trent E. Gabert is a professor and graduate liaison in the department of health and sport sciences at the University of Oklahoma. He is also the director of the sport management degree program and an instructor and researcher in areas of leadership, human resource development, finance and psychology in sport. Gabert earned a Ph.D. in motor behavior from the University of Wisconsin in 197 1.

Jeffrey L. Hale is the director of development for student affairs at the University of Oklahoma. He earned a Ph.D. in 1996 from the department of educational policy and leadership studies from the University of Oklahoma. The title of his dissertation was A Study of Self- Reported Learning Gains Among Freshmen Student-Athletes.

Greg Montalvo, Jr. is assistant professor of educational psychology at Western Illinois University. His areas of specialization include research methods, achievement motivation, and the psychology of instruction. Montalvo earned a Ph.D. in instructional psychology and technology from the University of Oklahoma in 1997.

Copyright National Association of College Admissions Counselors Summer 1999

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