Factors influencing the college selection process of student-athletes: are their factors similar to non-athletes.
College sports (Recruiting)
Letawsky, Nicole R.
Schneider, Raymond G.
Pedersen, Paul M.
Palmer, Carolyn J.
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: Dec, 2003 Source Volume: 37 Source Issue: 4
Event Code: 280 Personnel administration Computer Subject: Industry hiring
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Recruitment is a vital component for any college or university. Recruiting top student-athletes is even more strategic due to the potential increase in undergraduate admissions and booster donations that a championship season may bring. While much research has been conducted related to the factors influencing the choice of college, there is limited research focusing on college choice factors of student-athletes. Additionally, a majority of the research focusing on college choice factors of student-athletes does not address those student-athletes at top Division I-A institutions. The present study sought to determine if the factors that influence the college choice of high level students-athletes was different than research results focusing on non-athletes. The findings of this study suggest that, although student-athletes have different factors that influence college choice, non-athletic related factors as just as important as athletic related factors. These findings are valuable to the successful recruitment of student-athletes and may mean the difference between successful and unseccessful athletic programs.


The students entering institutions of higher education today are much different than those of previous generations (Abrahamson, 2000). Often called Generation Y, Baby Boomers II, and Millennials, this group has often been described as ambitious, precocious, stressed, wayward, and indifferent (Newton, 2000). Additionally, these people have been characterized as being exposed to greater "grown-up" activity and less experienced in exercising discipline and decision making (Newton, 2000). As this generation makes decisions about attending college, and ultimately what college to attend, they consider factors much differently than previous generations. It is imperative that those involved in the recruitment process understand both the factors that are most influential in selecting an institution and the methodology utilized by college bound students in their search process.

Previous studies have attempted to determine what factors have the greatest influence on students' college choice. Spies (1978) found that academic reputation of the institution was more important than financial considerations. More recently, Sevier (1993) studied college-bound high school juniors and reported that availability of desired major and total cost of attending college were the most important factors. Galotti and Mark (1994) noted that parents/guardians, friends, and guidance center materials were rated as most important in the college search process. Most recently, Hu and Hossler (2000) found that students were most influenced by family input and finance-related factors.

Intercollegiate Athletics

The transformation of college athletics over the past 30 years into a multi-billion dollar, internationally recognized business has changed the focus of intercollegiate athletic departments. Budget minded administrators have realized that a winning team can provide an effective means of advertising their institutions and securing much needed additional funding (Davies, 1994). Many Division I-A college basketball and football programs generate 20-to-30 million dollars annually in revenue (Fulks, 2000). Not surprisingly, success within an athletic department can positively impact the institution's overall reputation and ultimately lead to higher numbers and caliber of undergraduate applications. Over the past twenty years championship teams in football and basketball have led to increases in undergraduate admission applications for the years following the championship (Toma and Cross, 1998). In addition, winning teams bring notoriety, which allows greater selectivity in admissions but also stimulates booster donations to the athletic department and the university as a whole (Zimbalist, 1999).

With the impact winning athletic teams have on a university it is not surprising that the pressure to produce winning teams is enormous. Coaches are expected to recruit the most athletically talented players to provide the university with winning seasons. "Because the athletic record is identified with the prestige of the university, acquiring 'blue chip' athletes through active recruitment is a major concern of university coaches" (Mathes & Gurney, 1985, pp. 327-328). In order to ensure the cycle of successful seasons, it is imperative that the athletic department recruits the most athletically talented and academically eligible potential student-athletes possible.

Recruiting Student-Athletes

Since intercollegiate athletes not only choose a university, but also a team and coach, their college selection process may be much different than non-athletes. Although there has been much research focusing on the decision-making process of students, the literature focusing on student-athletes' decision making processes is limited. Mathes and Gurney (1985) found the college coach and campus environment were most important in the student-athlete decision making process. Similarly, Adler and Adler (1991) noted that the coach and reputation of the coach were most often mentioned by athletes. The opportunity to play early in their careers was found by Konnert and Giese (1987) as very high in the considerations of student-athletes. Reynaud (1998) identified receiving an athletic scholarship and academic reputation as the most important factors in the decision-making process. While these studies provided vital information and background on the decision-making processes of student-athletes, they were either conducted several years ago or included student-athletes at lower levels within the NCAA structure. It is anticipated that factors affecting the decision-making process will be different today than it was 10-to-15 years ago. Further, athletes competing at the Division I-A level are exposed to playing on television, before large crowds, and in an environment where championship seasons lead to increased admissions and increased booster donations. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to determine if the college choice factors of first-year, NCAA Division I-A student-athletes differ from previous research focusing on non-athletes. With this understanding universities can recruit quality student-athletes and be in a better position to win more championships, produce more revenue, and increase visibility.



The accessible population for this study included all 135 first-year student-athletes enrolled at a large, public, four-year, Research I institution that enrolls almost 40,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. In addition, the University has a large intercollegiate athletics program, involving more than 400 student-athletes and 25 varsity sports (12 for men and 13 for women). The University was selected for this study because of its national reputation as a "Big-Time College Sports" institution. Attempts were made to survey this entire population at the University during study table sessions required of all first-year student-athletes. However, eight students were not present at any of the study table sessions when data were collected and one student who was present refused to participate in the study. The remaining 126 first-year student-athletes who completed survey forms represented 99.2% of all students present during study table sessions and 93.3% of all first-year student-athletes at the University.


The Intercollegiate Student-Athlete Questionnaire (Gabert, Hale, & Montalvo, 1999), developed through consultation with athletic department personnel from various institutions, was adapted for use in this study. The resulting instrument was designed to explore the degree of influence that 25 college selection factors had on the decision made by prospective student-athletes to attend the University.

The survey consisted of five demographic items concerning each participant's gender, race/ethnicity, state of high school graduation, primary intercollegiate sport, and scholarship status. These items were followed by a list of 25 college choice factors such as family members and high school teammates; opportunities for travel and media exposure as a student-athlete; the institution's academic support services, athletic facilities, and degree program options. Students were asked to rate each of these 25 items using a five-point scale ranging from 1 (Not at All) to 5 (Very Much) to describe the extent to which each factor had influenced their selection of a university.

Data Collection Procedures

Permission to administer the survey at study-table sessions required of all first-year student-athletes was obtained from the Assistant Athletic Director at the University. Each student was told the purpose of the study and received directions for completing and returning the survey. Once the questionnaires were completed the students were asked to seal their responses in an envelope, and return the envelope to the researcher.

Data Analysis

The analyses utilized descriptive statistics (frequencies, percentages, means, standard deviations) to summarize the demographic characteristics of the respondents. For the purposes of sub-group comparisons, all respondents other than whites were combined to create a group representing students of color. Respondents who had graduated from high school in states other than the state in which the University is located were combined in a group representing out-of-state students. Finally, respondents whose primary intercollegiate sport was football or basketball were combined in a group representing revenue-producing sports while all remaining student-athletes were combined to represent non-revenue sports. Means and standard deviations were computed for responses to each of the 25 college choice factors.


At the time of the study 135 first-year student-athletes were enrolled at the University. Surveys were distributed to all first-year student-athletes present at study table meetings. Of the 127 individuals present, 126 returned completed and useable surveys for a response rate of 99.2%. The sample was comprised of 72 (57.1%) men and 54 (42.9%) women. In addition, the respondents were predominately white (79.4%); the remaining 20.6% were students of color. The second largest racial/ethnic group identified was African-American (14.3%). The majority of participants (52.4%) graduated from high schools within the state where the University is located. Full athletic scholarship recipients represented 22.2% of the sample, 26.2% were partial athletic scholarship recipients, 23.0% received non-athletic scholarships, and 28.6% indicated that they did not receive any scholarships. For the purposes of this study, a full athletic scholarship was defined as one that provided full funding for tuition, room, and board. A partial athletic scholarship involved any amount of funding provided by the athletic department that was less than a full athletic scholarship. A non-athletic scholarship referred to any funds awarded by a source other than the athletic department at the University. Finally, non-scholarship was defined as not receiving a scholarship from any source.

Revenue sports, defined as football and men's and women's basketball for the purpose of this study, involved 18.3% of the respondents. The remaining 81.7% participated in non-revenue sports. Although some other sports may produce some revenue at the University, the three revenue sports identified above are traditionally combined for the purposes of comparing revenue and non-revenue sports within the professional literature. It should be noted that 27.8% of the men, but only 5.6% of the women participated in revenue sports.

All sports offered by the University, with the exception of gymnastics, were represented in the obtained sample. Overall, cross country/track, football, swimming/diving, and soccer were the sports most often represented. The largest samples of men participated in football, cross/country, and swimming/diving. For women, cross country/track and water polo comprised the largest samples.

The five factors most influential in choosing a college of student-athletes included: degree-program options (M = 3.98), head coach (M = 3.86), academic support services on campus (M = 3.83), type of community in which the campus is located (M = 3.79), and the school's sports traditions (M = 3.77). Among the lease influential factors were college choice of friends (M = 1.63), the prospect of television exposure (M = 1.92), other (non-athletic related) financial aid (M = 1.94), school colors (M = 2.22), and opinions of high school teammates (M = 2.29).


This study found that the most important factor for student-athletes was the degree program options offered by the University. Other important factors were the head coach, academic support services, type of community in which the campus is located, and the school's sports traditions. Two of the top three factors were specifically related to the academic rather than athletic environment. This is a key finding and should be understood as recruiting efforts should be broad based, balancing academics and athletics if they are to be effective.

Traditionally, coaches recruiting for major college athletic departments focused on highlighting the athletic accomplishments of the athletic program. This study shows that academic accomplishments are just as important to those being recruited. Similar to a study conducted by Canale, Dunlap, Britt & Donahue (1996), academic reputation was very important for student-athletes seeking a college. This study also found that degree options were rated as the highest factor in the decision process. This may be due to the fact that the University offered more than 200-degree programs for undergraduates which may have attracted student-athletes' seeking a variety of degree program options. Like many undergraduates in the general student population at the University, student-athletes may find the institution's outstanding academic reputation to be very inviting. Such students are likely to be interested in academic support services, which the participants in this study indicated was their third most influential factor in their selection of a college.

Factors in the athletic environment at the University were also rated as very important in this study. Among the most important were the head coach, school's sports traditions, athletic facilities, athletic training facilities, and the official on-campus visit. The head coach was also identified as the most influential athletic factor for Division I student-athletes participating in a study conducted by Gabert, Hale, and Montalvo (1999). However, not all findings coincide with those reported within the college choice literature. For example, high school students often report that their friends have significant influence on their college-choice process. However, in this study, the opinions of high school teammates ranked 21st of 25 items and the college choice of one's high school friends ranked 25th or lowest of all the items listed on the survey form.

A somewhat surprising result of the study concerned relatively low ratings associated with factors considered essential to "Big-Time College Sports." Television exposure, perceived opportunity to play immediately, and perceived future professional sporting opportunities were among the lowest-ranked factors. Furthermore, the participants rated athletic rewards (a 5item survey scale containing these and other reward items) consistently lower than both the campus and athletic environment. These results may be due to the fact that respondents were from each of the sports offered by the University. Many of the sports (e.g., swimming, track), although funded and supported similar to the other sports, do not receive the national attention, large crowds, and television exposure.

Successful recruiting of college students is vital to the success of any university. Recruiting top level student-athletes is even more important due to the impact that successful seasons may have on increased admissions and donations to the university. Although there is no overriding factor as to why student-athletes choose a college to attend, this study provides a better understanding of the common reasons which can help recruiters focus their efforts on methods that are effective.


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