You Got Rejected from Your First Choice College. So What?

The following is a guest post from Robert Kelchen, doctoral candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Washington Post’s Campus Overload blog recently featured a guest post, “Getting Rejected from Your Dream School(s) isn’t a Bad Thing” by Eric Harris, a junior who attended the University of Maryland after being deferred by his first choice (Duke) and rejected by six of the other eight colleges to which he applied. (He was also accepted by Emory.) Eric’s story is hardly unique, as numerous blogs and websites feature stories of students who were rejected by their first choice college. Most of the popular media accounts of students rejected by their first choice college are from students like Eric—those who applied to a large number of highly selective (and very expensive) colleges and universities and still attended a prestigious institution.

The kinds of students who are typically featured in the media are very likely to enjoy college and graduate in a timely manner, no matter where they end up attending. But the students who should be prominently featured instead are those whose first choice colleges are very different than their other options (much less selective four-year colleges, community colleges, or no college at all). Just-released data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA shows that only 58 percent of students attending four-year universities were attending their first choice college in fall 2011; nearly one-fourth of students were rejected by their first choice. This suggests that a fair number of students fall into this category, but little is known about their college outcomes.

As a part of my dissertation, I am using data from the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study to examine the college experiences of students who attended their first choice college to those who attended another college—either because they were rejected by their first choice or because they were accepted by their first choice but did not attend. WSLS students all come from modest financial backgrounds and were Pell Grant recipients during their first year of college, so it is likely that the cost of college played a much larger role in their college choice process than for students like Eric.

It is important to note that students end up at their first choice college as the result of three decisions: applying to their first choice (not explored in my study), getting accepted, and then attending after being accepted. I model the acceptance and attendance decisions using available information on the students’ demographics and academic preparation, their high school of attendance, and their first choice college. This is an important step in establishing a causal relationship because WSLS students who attended their first choice college tend to come from different backgrounds (especially from more rural areas) than those who did not.

I use interview and survey data to explore whether students’ academic and social integration levels differed between students who attended their first choice and those who did not for either of the above reasons. The interviews suggest that most students reported being happy with their college of attendance, regardless of whether that was their first choice college. (Whether this is actually true or whether this is an example of self-affirmation bias, in which people try to portray a disappointing event in the best possible light, cannot be determined.) There are also few differences between students who attended their first choice and those who did not on survey measures of academic and social integration.

I also use academic outcomes from the University of Wisconsin System and the National Student Clearinghouse to estimate the effects of attending one’s first choice college. After modeling the selection process, I find no statistically significant differences on academic outcomes between students who attended their first choice and either group who did not. (This dissertation chapter is nearly complete, so stay tuned for the full results.)

It appears that being rejected from one’s first choice college is not the end of the world for most students. The psychic costs appear quite high in much of the popular media, but we don’t need to feel too sorry for students who are forced to attend a highly selective college that may have been their seventh choice instead of their first. I spent three years in college working in the admissions office at Truman State University, and I talked with plenty of students for whom Truman was not their first choice. After being rejected by elite, expensive universities, they came to Truman and turned out just fine. So don’t worry too much about getting rejected by your first choice college—especially if paying for college was never one of your concerns. Everything will be okay.