Analysis: New research highlights how factors other than geographic proximity are particularly important for students

By Darragh Flannery, University of LimerickJohn Cullinan, NUI Galway and Sharon Walsh, NUI Galway

February 1st is the deadline for applications to the Central Applications Office (CAO) for those wishing to enter higher education next September. This marks an important milestone in in the lives of many young people, and is part of the process that determines both whether they progress to higher education, as well as where and what they study.

Previous research has described the important role that geography plays in these choices, with the majority of school leavers that progress to higher education enrolling at higher education institutes that are closer to them. For example, in 2017/18, around 55 percent of full-time students enrolled in UCC came from Cork, while young people from Donegal are relatively more likely to attend Letterkenny IT.

The diagram’ below shows the flows of school leavers from counties in Connacht to all higher education institutes in Ireland in 2015. This nicely illustrates the localised nature of higher education transition patterns in this country. For example, students who attended secondary school in Galway are most likely to attend NUI Galway or Galway-Mayo IT. Smaller numbers of Galway students proceed to University of Limerick and Limerick IT, with relatively fewer students proceeding to institutes elsewhere.

Higher education transitions from Connacht schools

But despite the relatively high costs associated with studying away from home, there are also considerable numbers of students who choose to leave home for higher education, and who face the important decision about which college or university to attend. Moreover, there are many students, mainly from large urban centres, who need to pick from one of a number of accessible institutions.

While CAO points and the specific courses on offer are obviously primary determinants, there has been very little analysis to date of the other attributes or characteristics of colleges that are most important to students. In an era where the higher education sector is becoming increasingly competitive due to the "bums on seats" funding model that is in place, and where debates surrounding financing structures and equity of access are more and more in focus, considering what students would like from a college or university is crucial.

Within this context, we employed an experimental approach with students in their final year of upper secondary education in order to explore the characteristics that students most value in third-level education. Our discrete choice experiment (DCE) methodology is particularly useful as it encouraged students to carefully consider the attributes of higher education institutions by asking them to trade-off between different characteristics.

Sample choice card of hypothetical higher education choices provided to students

In the choice card above, we created different hypothetical "types" of institutions with varying characteristics. The student then picked the option which best fits their own preferences, thereby revealing the characteristics that he or she values most. For example, if a student placed particular emphasis on having a work placement in their programme of study, they may be drawn towards option B. On the other hand, if having a work placement available is not as important as being close to home for a young person, they went for option A instead. By presenting multiple different choice cards with varying features to prospective students, we were able to get a clearer picture of the characteristics that they value and the relative importance of these characteristics.

Using this methodology, we surveyed over 1,000 students in their Leaving Certificate year. Consistent with our previous research, we found that students on average prefer to attend a higher education institutions closer to home. However, we also found clear evidence that many students are willing to travel (and thus incur the costs of living further from home) to study at a college or university that has an excellent course reputation and/or a work placement as part of their programme of study.

The finding that young people place such a strong emphasis on course reputation and work placements is both interesting and important. It illustrates that young people care about the potential labour market benefits of participating in higher education when making this important choice; something that does not fit with the stereotype of a cohort of young people attending higher education and obsessed with socialising. However, it also poses questions around the relative value that students may place on the non-financial benefits accruing from higher education, such as social and emotional development and the enjoyment of learning itself.

As young people complete their CAO applications in the coming weeks, colleges and universities should be aware of the factors that will likely influence their decision on where to study

We also analysed these preferences across different groups of Leaving Certificate students. For example, we found that those in lower socioeconomic groups were less certain regarding their preferences for higher education characteristics. This is interesting, as it implies that these students are less sure about their choices compared to their better-off peers and, as a consequence, may be more likely to make poorer decisions in relation to where and what they study.

Another important finding to emerge from our study is that some students show a strong preference for attending an institute of technology over a university, irrespective of the other characteristics available. From a policy perspective, given the current plan to create new technological universities in Ireland through the consolidation of ITs, this finding has implications for the mix of higher education provision. In particular, it implies there is significant value from the student perspective in maintaining diverse higher education provision in Ireland, as the more applied nature of courses on offer in ITs is a potentially attractive option for many young people.

The choices of what and where to study in higher education represent key decisions for young people who wish to continue their studies beyond the Leaving Certificate. For policy makers and higher education managers, incorporating student perspectives on the kinds of characteristics they value is increasingly important and relevant. As young people complete their CAO applications in the coming weeks, colleges and universities should be aware of the factors that will likely influence their decision on where to study.

Dr. Darragh Flannery is a lecturer in economics at University of LimerickDr. John Cullinan is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the School of Business & Economics at NUI Galway. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Sharon Walsh is a Post-Doc researcher in the Health Economics & Policy Analysis Centre at NUI Galway.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ