Fit In or Stand Out? The Evaluation of Academic Quality and Fit in College Choices
Posted: 24 Jun 2019
Date Written: May 31, 2019
Understanding students’ college enrollment decisions is of crucial importance as the admission outcome has an impact on the quality of a school and its reputation. In this paper, we study how students evaluate academic quality and fit in making their college matriculation decisions. In particular, we look at how they take into consideration their relative academic ability compared to their potential peer students in class. Drawing from social comparison theory, we posit that there are asymmetric effects due to deviation from peers’ ability depending on the direction of the deviations. By analyzing a rich data set collected from college applicants in a wide range of aptitude, we find that, while the applicants evaluate negatively their deviations below the potential peers, they value positively those above the peers (the “big fish, little pond” effect). By investigating heterogeneity of the effects across students driven by their application behaviors, we find evidence that the students who applied to more universities are more susceptible to these psychological effects. Further analysis points to the level of the individual student’s self-confidence as a possible explanation.
Keywords: college enrollment decision, selectivity, academic fit, social comparison
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