Factors Influencing Higher Education Institution Choice

Sharon Walsh and John Cullinan


Government policy with respect to higher education in Ireland is centred on increasing overall participation and promoting equality of opportunity for all individuals who wish to progress to higher education (Newman 2011). Based on these broad policy objectives, research to date has typically focused on examining the factors associated with progression to higher education (Flannery and O’Donoghue 2009; Cullinan et al. 2013; McCoy 2010; McCoy and Byrne 2011)—see Chap. 2 for a detailed discussion. However, within this context, little is known about students’ preferences for higher education institutions (HEIs), or what factors influence students in their choice of institution in Ireland. Such information is relevant for policymakers seeking to increase overall partic-

S. Walsh (*) • J. Cullinan

School of Business & Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway, Galway, Ireland

© The Author(s) 2017

J. Cullinan, D. Flannery (eds.), Economic Insights on Higher Education Policy in Ireland, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48553-9_4

ipation rates and for HEI managers seeking to attract and retain students. Therefore, this chapter aims to fill this gap and presents findings from a national survey of Leaving Certificate students in Ireland. It explores a number of factors influencing institution choice, including peer, sibling and parental influences, as well as a range of institution attributes.

An examination of such factors has important implications for many stakeholders in the higher education sector, including individual HEIs. It has been suggested that a continued increase in Government spending in the higher education sector in Ireland may not be feasible (Department of Education and Science 2009) and so HEIs will have to operate in an increasingly competitive environment. As a result, it is becoming ever more important for HEIs to make informed choices about the allocation of scarce resources in an effort to attract students. Therefore, from a service provision and marketing perspective, HEI managers need to be aware of what students value in order to deliver quality services that will serve the needs and expectations of prospective students.

Furthermore, HEIs increasingly need to ensure the successful participation and progression of students within their respective institutions (Higher Education Authority [HEA] 2015a). Indeed, a recent report by the HEA examined the issue of non-progression in the higher education sector in Ireland (HEA 2016), finding that 16% of new entrants in 2012/13 did not progress to the following year of study (Chap. 5 of this book considers the issue of student retention in higher education in detail). Interestingly, they showed that females and students with higher prior educational attainment are more likely to progress to the following year (HEA 2016). Given this, it could be argued that understanding what students value may assist HEIs to better match the provision of courses to student preferences, which in turn may help to lower non-progression rates. Thus, overall, institutional attention is increasingly focused on the dual aims of recruitment and retention, both of which would be better informed by an understanding of what factors influence a student’s choice of institution.

In addition to understanding the attributes of a HEI that influence institution choice, it is also important to consider the potential influences of peers, siblings and parents, as well as the factors associated with whether to live at home while attending higher education. For example, it could be argued that parents who have no experience of higher education might be limited in the advice they can impart to their children, given their lack of exposure to and understanding of the system of educational opportunities. In fact, McCoy et al. (2010) found that young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in Ireland are far more reliant on advice and support from their school in making higher education decisions. They suggested that this is driven by the fact that parents have little experience of college and that their siblings and peers are not generally familiar with the higher education process. On the other hand, previous studies have found that parental encouragement is vital in shaping a student’s initial thoughts and aspirations to progress to higher education (Hossler and Stage 1992). In this context, it is important to examine the factors associated with whether parental influence is important in shaping a student’s choice of HEI. We also examine the importance and correlates of peer and sibling influences which, similar to parental influence, may impact in a positive or negative fashion.

The decision of whether or not to live at home while attending higher education can also have important implications for institution choice, though the two are of course inter-related. Sa et al. (2011) stated that the HEI choice of prospective students living at home is more likely to be geographically constrained. Thus, students living in areas with poor accessibility to HEIs may be limited in their choice of institution if they are not mobile (Walsh et al. 2015b). The decision to live at home, or not, while in higher education is an important one since Sa et al. (2011) have argued that living away from home can help to contribute to an individual’s independence.

The chapter is organised as follows: the next section provides a review of the international literature on the factors influencing institution choice. Following this, we consider three such specific factors, namely peer, sibling and parental influences using recent data for Ireland. We also consider what factors are associated with a student’s decision to live at home while in higher education. This is followed by a discussion of the usefulness of discrete choice experiments (DCEs) in examining student preferences for HEIs, as well as a summary overview from such a DCE for Ireland. The final section concludes.

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