Student Preferences for HEI Attributes: A Discrete Choice Experiment

Using DCEs to Examine Student Preferences for HEIs

Although the factors influencing institution choice have been well- documented, there is little robust evidence on the relative importance of HEI characteristics in determining student preferences for HEIs. Some previous studies have employed basic ranking and rating exercises, while others have used ‘conjoint analysis’, a form of stated preference methodology. However, Louviere et al. (2010, p. 67) argue that “conjoint analysis lacks a sound, theoretical relationship with real market choice behaviour(s), which serves to reinforce the ad hoc, predominantly statistical and methodological nature of conjoint analysis research and practice”. On the other hand, Louviere et al. (2010) argue that DCEs, a survey-based research methodology used to elicit preferences, are grounded in a long-standing, well-tested theory of choice behaviour. More specifically, in a deviation from standard consumer theory, Lancaster (1966) argued that it is the attributes of a good that determine a good’s utility and, as a result, utility can be expressed as a function of a good’s attributes.

In this context, we summarise selected findings from a DCE of student preferences for HEIs in Ireland (Walsh et al. 2017). Since education is not ‘traded’ in a market, we do not know the value that individuals place on HEIs or their characteristics. However, a DCE allows us to estimate the value of a non-market good/service, in this case a HEI, by examining students’ preferences for HEIs. DCEs are based on the principle that, firstly, any good or service can be described by its characteristics (or attributes) and, secondly, the extent to which an individual values a good or service depends upon the nature and levels of these characteristics. The technique involves presenting individuals with choices of scenarios described in terms of characteristics and associated levels and for each choice they are asked to choose their preferred scenario. The alternatives presented are constructed by means of an experimental design that varies one or more attributes within and between respondents. This allows us to examine how preferences change when we change the attributes.

An advantage of DCEs is that they encourage people to think systematically about the attributes of a good or service by asking them to reveal how they would be willing to trade off different bundles of these attributes. From a policy viewpoint, this can help to identify the key drivers influencing young people in Ireland in their choice of HEI, which will have important implications not only for policy makers and institution managers in terms of planning decisions and service provision but also for students and parents as stakeholders in the sector.

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