How facilities affect students' college choices

August 11, 2010

In 1986, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching asked a thousand students what physical factor most influenced them to pick the college they attended. Sixty-two percent said that the appearance of the college's buildings and grounds was the crucial facilities-related factor.

Twenty years later, the Center for Facilities Research (CFaR), the research division of APPA, which represents facilities directors in higher education, conducted a more elaborate study of 16,153 students from 46 institutions in the U.S. and Canada to determine what physical factors affect student recruitment and retention. Key findings:

73% of students said “facilities related to my major” were “extremely” or “very important” in college selection.Other facilities that swayed students: the library (53%), sophisticated academic technology (51%), classroom buildings (50%), and residence halls (42%).64% of students agreed or agreed strongly that that the condition of facilities on campus was important in choosing a college.Almost 29% ruled out a college that lacked a specific facility, notably one related to the student's major (36%) and—remarkably—open spaces or campus quadrangles (29%).More than one-fourth of students (26%) said that an inadequate facility led them to strike that college off the list. Biggest bugaboos: residences (41%), facilities in the student's major field of study (40%), and classrooms (24%).

The authors of the APPA report acknowledge that, for most students (and parents), true “academic” factors like the college's reputation, curriculum, student/faculty ratio, campus life, graduation rate, and so on are generally paramount. But the quality and appearance of facilities may be a signal to aspiring freshmen that a university just isn't up to snuff.

One of the more interesting findings of the APPA study, in my opinion, had to do with college recreation centers. As we have reported in these pages, many colleges and universities seem to be engaged in a war of attrition to see which can build the grandest, most expensive rec center. It's a game of potlatch. If Boogaloo State's rock wall is 46 feet high, rival Xanadu Tech has to build one 58 feet high.

In fact, only 32% of students surveyed said that recreation facilities were either “important” or “very important” in their decision to attend an institution. It's my guess that elaborate recreation centers have a lot to do with the egos of rich donors who want the family name on a sexy building. I mean, who wants to have their moniker on the Classics Department building? But if the CFaR data is right, prospective students don't care as much about rec centers as the trustees think they do.

The Impact of Facilities on the Recruitment and Retention of Students, by David A. Cain and Gary L. Reynolds, is available from APPA: BD+C's Jay Schneider will host a discussion of the report in our webcast September 20. Register at:


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