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Students from low-income families are greatly underrepresented at selective colleges and universities in the United States. In an attempt to increase applications from low-income students, some institutions have developed programs involving increased recruitment of and more attractive financial aid packages for students from low-income families. However, relatively little research has looked at the factors that are important in the college application decision-making process, and in particular how the importance of some factors may be different for low-income students. This paper uses data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 cohort to analyze the factors influencing students' college application decisions, with a focus on the decision to apply to a selective four-year institution. We analyze how the influence of distance from a student’s home during high school to a selective college or university and average tuition levels at selective institutions located nearby vary with the a student’s family income. Our results show that the further a student lives from a selective college, the less likely they are to apply to one, and this effect seems to be stronger than that of average tuition levels in the student’s state. Although the effect of distance does not differ for low-income students, they are most heavily impacted due to the geographic mismatch of low-income students and selective institutions. Personal, family (in particular, parent’s education) and high school characteristics also prove to be very influential when students are deciding whether or not to apply to a selective institution.


Suggested Citation
Griffith, A.L. (2007). Can’t get here from there: The decision to apply to a selective institution [Electronic version]. Retrieved [insert date], from Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations site:

Required Publisher Statement
Published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, Cornell University.