College Choice Factors for Division I Athletes at an Urban University

ABSTRACT

Purpose: Recently there has been much research attention focused on the college and university choice factors of potential student-athletes. Kankey and Quarterman (2007) developed a questionnaire, which was tested on Division I softball players, and advocated for more research utilizing different athlete populations to further analyze college and university choice factors among student athletes. As a result, the purpose of this research is to apply Kankey and Quarterman’s (2007) questionnaire to one athletic department with student athlete respondents from all sports funded by a Division I athletic department in order to ascertain: What factors are important to these Division I athletes when choosing to attend their present school? Methods: Division I student athletes were surveyed regarding the importance of certain factors influencing their decisions to attend this particular urban-serving institution. Online surveys were solicited through sport programs for volunteers. Student athletes took the online survey, which was used to develop an electronic database for analysis. Surveys with missing or skipped information were discarded leaving a sample of 101 respondents (n=101). Results: Statistical analyses indicate the most important choice factor to be the coaching staff. Other important—and highly rated factors—include personal relationships, financially based reasons, and academics/ career development. The least important factors included media related issues, technology outlets, and past coaches. Conclusion: Hossler and Gallagher’s (1987) student choice model is integrated with Symbolic Interactionism in order to understand results. It appears that a variety of factors are important to student athletes, which illustrates the multifaceted identities of student athletes. Applications in Sport: Collegiate sport practitioners and/or coaches working with constrained student development programming and/or recruiting budgets are better able to streamline these processes with a better understanding of student athlete choice factors. Knowing which factors to emphasize during the choice stage of choosing a college/university will better assist urban-serving universities during program development or recruiting.

INTRODUCTION

A sizable proportion of colleges and universities within the United States support athletic opportunities for their respective student bodies (Kankey& Quarterman, 2007). One common notion is those athletic programs supported by colleges/universities are integral to the overall college experience for potential and/or current students. Indeed, Coakley (2007) articulated the common perception that student athletes positively impact universities because sport programs increase student enrollment and revenue generating opportunities. Another potential expense to colleges or universities is the process of bringing those student athletes to campus, which can be a costly venture. Urban serving institutions of higher education tend to have constrained financial resources, which mirror the social inequities of urban public schools (Jordan, 2007). Athletic departments within these institution scan benefit greatly from understanding how to efficiently recruit potential student athletes. Finally, “conducting research regarding college or university choice factors, especially when organized within a social framework,helps both practitioners and academics in understanding the identities of student-athletes by illustrating what is important to them during the recruiting process” (Vermillion, 2010, p. 1). Indeed, previous research identified the need for examining how student athletes view their identities,academic careers, and the factors influencing them to attend specific institutions of higher education. (For example, see Letawsky, Schneider,Pedersen, & Palmer, 2003; Kankey & Quarterman, 2007; Vermillion,2010).

This research focuses exclusively on Division I student athletes in an urban-serving institution and attempts to extend Kankey and Quarterman’s(2007) findings regarding factors influencing the university choice of NCAA Division I softball players by utilizing their questionnaire for student athletes of all sports. As a result, the purpose of this project is to readily identify what college or university factors influence Division I student athletes to attend their present urban-serving schools. To accurately ground this project within the previous literature, a brief background discussion of factors influencing the college or university choice of the general student body, student athletes, and sport specific student athletes is summarized.Vermillion (2010) noted the usefulness of amalgamating social theory with other education theories in order to develop a holistic, interdisciplinary framework for discussing college choice factors with student athletes. As a result,Hossler and Gallaher’s (1987) model, and Symbolic Interactionism (Blumer,1969) are combined in order to explain or describe not only the data collected,but also the results and recommendations.

Background

There has been a relatively constant stream of college and university choice factors research for the last 50 years (for example, see Astin, 1965, Gorman,1976, Kealey & Rockel, 1987, Lourman & Garman, 1995, and Hu &Hossler, 2000). Summarizing this research, several key college or university choice factors—regarding the general student body—have been identified. These key factors include academic reputation of the institution,friendship influences, proximity to family, financial aid availability, the location of the institution, and program availability. Kankey and Quarterman(2007) noted the increase of research being conducted regarding college or university choice factors as related to student athletes. The emerging line of scholarly inquiry includes, but is not limited to, research regardingwomen’s athletics (Nicodemus, 1990), male athletes in general (Fielitz,2001), male, sport-specific athletes (Ulferts, 1992; Kraft & Dickerson,1996), freshmen male athletes (Fortier, 1986), and Division III male athletes and non-athletes (Giese, 1986). Common conclusions from the aforementioned studies and other research indicates the head coach, opportunity for participation, various academic factors and amount of available scholarships are important factors influencing student athletes. However, Letawsky,Schneider, Pedersen, and Palmer (2003) noted while athletic -based factors are important to student athletes’ decisions to attend colleges or universities, non-athletic factors also contribute to the decision to attend apresent college or university. To our knowledge, there has been little to no exploration of college choice factors of student athletes in one athletic department with respondent representation of all athletic programs.Additionally, there has been very little research done examining urban-serving institutions and their respective athletic departments. In order to adequately understand college choice factors and urban serving schools’ athletics, a theoretical framework is needed to guide not only research questions, but also interpretation of the descriptive statistical results.

Conceptual Framework

The original conceptual framework utilized by Kankey and Quarterman (2007)to organize and represent their data and findings was Hossler and Gallaher’s (1987) model. Hossler and Gallaher’s model has also been adapted to better understand this research. Specifically, it is a three-stagemodel that identifies and describes the college selection process of individuals and is composed of three stages: predisposition, search, and choice stages. The predisposition stage is the time when students decide if they want to continue into higher education by pursuing colleges or universities, while the search stage encompasses the individual’s evaluations of college or universities, which includes large amounts of interaction. Finally, the choice stage focuses on the submission of application to a targeted pool of colleges or universities.Regarding sport, Kankey and Quarterman (2007) focused primarily on the last stage within Hossler and Gallagher’s (1987) model, which is when the student athlete develops serious intentions about a select few colleges or universities. The student athlete engages in a cost-benefit analysis in order to determine the positives and negatives of each college or university and attempts to make a sound decision. For student athletes, this stage could encompass not only being recruited, but also critically examining the factors that are the most pertinent to their specific situation and taking official visits. Focusing on the “choice stage” is also salient for this project, which addresses college athletes attending an urban serving institution. Understanding why some student athletes choose to attend one college or university over another competitor is important for understanding student athletes’ educational, athletic, and social motivations to attend institutions of higher education.

Symbolic Interactionism

Vermillion (2010) noted Symbolic Interactionism (SI)—a sociological theory focusing on identity, social interaction, and symbolinterpretation—is easily applied to many areas within the institution of sport. Using a micro level of analysis, SI provides a description or explanation of the constructed reality of spectators, athletes, or coaches(Coakley, 2007). Additionally, Cunningham (2007) noted SI understands how people give meaning to their participation or consumption of daily activities.Recently, SI has been used by a variety of scholars to examine a wide variety of sport-based social dynamics, including student athlete choice factors. Some of this research includes, but is not limited to: understanding sport subcultures and the resulting socialization process of rugby players and rock climbers (Donnelly & Young, 1999); examining the role of athletics in gay or lesbian athletes’ lives (Anderson, 2005); explaining the disproportionate lack of women in sport organization leadership positions(Sartore & Cunningham, 2007); understanding how students interpret and consume indigenous sport imagery (Vermillion, Friedrich, & Holtz, 2010); or examining the college choice factors important for influencing community college softball players to attend their current school (Vermillion, 2010).

SI is composed of three basic assumptions. Hughes and Kroehler (2005)summarize Blumer (1969) and Fine (1993) and stated the following theory tenets:1) we interact with things in our social environment based upon shared meanings, 2) these meanings are not inherent, but rather, are social constructions, and 3) shared meanings are in a perpetual state of change and evolution. Interactions and communication within a specific social environment adheres to the aforementioned assumptions and helps to form an individual’s “constructed reality,” which is an individual’s interpretation of the social world and dynamics around them(Eitzen & Sage, 2009). When combined with Hossler and Gallagher’s(1987) choice model, we are better able to understand the social psychological processes interacting within the decision to attend or not attend a specific urban -serving institution.

Explaining or describing choice factors important to athletes in urban-serving institutions is important by highlighting the social psychological processes associated with the decision to attend a specific institution of higher education. SI’s focus on the “meaning”athletes give to their participation is useful for examining the power the“athlete role” has on not only the identity of the student athlete,but also the decisions that student athlete makes. Stryker (1980) addressed oneof SI’s limitations—lack of a focus on social structure (Ritzer,2000)—by combining SI with role theory. This adapted version of SI identifies the importance of social roles within the lives of individuals,which are forms of social structure. Student athletes, for example, have multiple roles that they “play” throughout the day, including being a student, university representative, son/daughter, sibling, friend, and athlete. Examining the social-psychological process of how impactful these roles are upon the individual in question provides practitioners insight into the programs, services, or infrastructures that should be emphasized during the costly process of student athlete recruitment. As previously noted urban-serving, institutions tend to suffer from constrained fiscal environments, which are similar to those constraints faced by urban public schools (Jordan, 2007). SI’s usefulness lies in the fact it understands individuals are decision-makers, and provides a structured, analytical way for highlighting how the decisions student athletes make impact not only their social environments (Hughes & Kroehler, 2005), but also the colleges oruniversities they attend (Vermillion, 2010).

Significance

This research project is significant in a number of ways. First, there is very little research done examining the choice factors of: 1) all sports (and resulting athletes) in one athletic department, and 2) athletes from an urban-serving institution. The purpose of this research is to address these gaps in the previous literature. Secondly, the research would also be useful to college or university athletic programs. Specifically, the research will help to streamline the recruiting process for many athletic departments—ofsimilar composition—by addressing the most important choice factors for student athletes in these types of schools. As a result, a better and more efficient allocation of recruiting funds may be developed in order to maximize shrinking recruiting budgets. Moreover, this research is particularly timely as athletic departments attempt to build relationships with other university,academic-based programs. If certain academic programs are identified as particularly salient to potential student athletes, then athletic department personnel can work with other academic administrators in order to: 1) bridge the increasing division and distance between academic programs/the campus community and athletic departments, and 2) demonstrate a commitment to a holistic student athlete experience, which includes the social, athletic, and professional/academic development of the student athlete.

Finally, urban-serving institutions, historically, are comprised of student populations that differ from institutions not classified as such. Urban-serving school districts have higher rates of poverty, racial/ethnic diversity, and equalized access to strong community and educational infrastructures (Howey,2008). As Jordan (2007) noted, urban-serving colleges or universities mirror many of the same inequality patterns found in urban, public school districts.As a result, more research is needed in order to understand collegiate athletics within an urban- embedded university context. It can be hypothesized that universities within urban settings—or designated as urban-serving institutions—have athletic departments that must recognize the relatively unique nature of these campus communities, which may manifest itself in unique athletic facilities, programs, and/or recruiting efforts and strategies.

Research Questions

The research question guiding this research was influenced by previous sport-based research centering on college or university choice factors for student athletes. Based upon Hossler and Gallagher’s (1987) model, are cognition of the uniqueness of urban-serving institutions of higher education, and utilized in conjunction with SI’s theoretical influence,the following research questions is posed: Which college and university choice factors are the most influential for having Division I athletes attend their present urban serving institution? That is, what factors are the most important to Division I student athletes when deciding to attend their present school?

METHODOLOGY

Participants

Respondents for the study were selected from the student athlete population of a large, state university located in the southern high plains of the United States. The university is designated as an urban-serving university and is embedded in an urban environment within a predominantly rural state. It is important to note the university is designated as a Division I (formerly known as Division I AAA) by the NCAA. This is the label given to Division I athletic departments that do not fund or field football teams. As a result, the potential survey population is slightly smaller as compared to FBS (FootballBowl Subdivision) or FCS (Football Championship Series) athletic departments,formerly known as Division I A and Division I AA respectively. Surveys we readministered as online surveys and once surveys were completed, responses were automatically entered into a spreadsheet, which was imported into SPSS 17.0 in order to develop an electronic database. Surveys with missing (skipped)questions or ambiguous answers were discarded and not included in the database.While not all student athletes responded fully, there was representation of all athletic programs administered by the athletic department at the time of data collection. After data collection a total of 101 usable surveys were included in the analysis (n=101).

In order to determine the demographics of the respondents, basic questions were asked to determine gender, academic status (freshman, sophomore, junior,and senior), country of origin, race or ethnicity and sport they participated in. The resulting sample included more females than males (65% vs. 35%) and was composed of freshmen (23.2%), sophomores (30.3%), juniors (29.3%), and seniors(17.2%). The majority of respondents listed white as their race/ ethnicity(64.6%) or African-American/Black (30.2%) and their country of origin as the United State (84.5%). Finally, table 1 illustrates the percent of respondents based upon sport.

Table 1

Percent of respondents by sport categories (n=101).

Sport Percent (%) N
Baseball 9.1 9
Softball 6.1 6
Women’s Basketball 10.1 10
Men’s Basketball 5.1 5
Volleyball 10.1 10
Men’s track 11.1 11
Women’s track 24.2 24
Men’s golf 4 4
Women’s golf 3 3
Women’s tennis 4 4
Men’s tennis 4 4
Cross Country 9.1 9

Measure

The data collection survey consisted of the aforementioned five demographic questions and college choice factors used by Kankey and Quarterman (2007). Permission was obtained by the primary researcher to use the Kankey and Quarterman factor list for additional research and was adapted to this research focusing on Division I student athletes. The possible answer choices regarding the importance of the college choice factors included “extremely important,” “very important,” “moderately important,” “slightly important,” and“unimportant,” which were numerically coded with “extremely important” rating a five (5) while “unimportant” was rated as one (1). As a result, the higher the rating, the more important the college choice factor was to the student athlete.

Procedure

Student athletes were asked by their coaches or athletic program administrators to complete the online survey. Additional follow-up contacts were made to specific programs to ensure that there was student athlete representation from all sponsored sports in the athletic department. Informed consent was done electronically with the disclaimer attached to the electronic version of the survey. Student athlete participation was not mandatory, but it was encouraged. All results are not simply confidential, but also anonymous because a detailed respondent record cannot be tracked or charted in the current electronic database. Surveys were taken by student athletes while coaches and staff were not present to avoid any influence or tainting of respondent self-reports. The gathered statistical information was shared with the athletic department in addition to being used for this research. Electronic survey information, which was saved in spreadsheet format, was imported into SPSS 17.0 for data analysis.

RESULTS

In keeping with Kankey and Quarterman (2007) a descriptive analysis is used to initially describe and identify the college choice factors associated with Division I athletes attending urban-serving institutions. Regarding the research question (what factors are the most important to Division I student athletes when deciding to attend their present school?), initial univariate responses indicate that 87% of the factors presented in this research were at or above the midpoint of the scale (M= 3.00). In addition, almost half of the factors (15 out of 32, or almost 47%) had means over 4.00 with over 70% of respondents rating these factors as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ to their choice to attend this urban-serving university. The seven most highly rated factors, which had mean scale scores at or above 4.25,included coaching staff (M=4.68, SD=0.66); amount of financial aid or scholarship offered (M=4.47, SD=078); support services offered to studentathletes (e.g. study hall, tutors, etc…)(M=4.44, SD= 0.74); availability of resources (money, equipment, etc…)(M=4.31, SD=0.75); opportunity to win conference or national championship (M=4.27, SD=0.83); availability of major (M= 4.25, SD=0.94); and social atmosphere of team (M=4.25, SD= 0.88). See table 2.

The means of only three factors were rated below the scale midpoint. These factors included amount of media coverage (M=2.96, SD=1.94); high school coach(M=2.87, SD= 1.44); and team’s website, Facebook, Twitter (M=2.66, SD=1.21). Only about 30% of the respondents rated these three factors as‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ in their decision to attend this particular urban-serving institution and participate in athletics.See table 2.

Table 2

Mean, Standard Deviation, and Percent (%) of Factor Choices Influencing Division I Student Athletes to attend their Urban-serving Institution(n=101).

Factor Mean SD % rated extremely or very important
Coaching staff 4.68 0.66 94%
Amt of financial aid/scholarship offered 4.47 0.78 86.2%
Support services offered to student athletes (e.g. study hall, tutors, etc…) 4.44 0.74 89.1%
Availability of resources (e.g. money, equipment, etc…) 4.31 0.75 85.1%
Opportunity to win conference or national championship 4.27 0.83 83.2%
Availability of anticipated major 4.25 0.94 84.2%
Social atmosphere of team 4.25 0.88 81.2%
Athletic facilities 4.21 0.83 83.2%
Career opportunities after graduation 4.20 0.95 78.2%
Team’s competitive schedule 4.20 0.80 84.2%
Meeting team’s members 4.12 0.98 74.2%
Amt of playing time 4.10 1.02 77.3%
Overall reputation of the college/university 4.10 0.90 80.2%
Academic reputation of the college/university 4.10 1.00 71.2%
Team’s overall win/loss record 4.03 0.86 73.3%
Team’s tradition 3.89 0.85 68.3%
Location of university 3.86 1.04 66.4%
Opportunity to play immediately 3.82 1.08 59.4%
Conference affiliation of team 3.82 0.96 61.4%
Cost of college/university 3.76 1.26 64.3%
My parents 3.76 1.37 59.5%
Housing 3.66 1.04 57.5%
Campus visit 3.64 1.13 62.4%
Fan support of the team 3.60 1.12 52.5%
Social life at the university 3.54 1.13 51.5%
Campus life at college/university 3.53 1.01 48.5%
My friends 3.26 1.39 46.5%
Size of the college/university 3.24 1.10 39.6%
Team sponsorships (e.g. Nike, Adidas, UnderArmor) 3.24 1.39 42.5%
Amt of media coverage 2.96 1.24 30.7%
High school coach 2.87 1.44 37.6%
Team’s website, Facebook, Twitter 2.26 1.21 34.7%

DISCUSSION

The purpose of this research was to identify the college choice factors mostsalient to Division I athletes attending urban-serving institutions. Table 2highlights the factors that were most readily identified by these studentathletes as impactful and relates to Hossler and Gallagher’s (1987)choice stage. Using symbolic interactionism (SI)—a social psychologicaltheory examining how sports are related to peoples’ choices and identities—may be beneficial for understanding the most and leastimportant factors for student athletes (Vermillion, 2010). As reported bystudent athletes, there are many factors that go into the choice to attend this particular urban-serving institution. Personal or social relationships (e.g.coaching staff, social atmosphere of team), career goals (e.g. support services, availability of major, career opportunities after graduation),finances (e.g. amount of financial aid/scholarship offered), and program success (e.g. opportunity to win conference or national championship) wereself-reported as influencing their decisions. Conversely, media coverage,technology outlets (e.g. website, Facebook, and Twitter), and previous headcoach had little to no impact upon their ultimate decision to attend thisuniversity.

These categories of factors illustrate how multi-faceted student athletes are regarding both their personal and athletic identities. Specifically, SI notes sports are important to an individual’s identity; with this information both academics and collegiate sport practitioners are able tobetter understand motives of student athletes when choosing colleges/universities and athletic departments/programs. In keeping with much previous research (e.g. Kankey & Quarterman, 2007), the importance of relationships—especially with coaches—tops the list of college choice factors. Indeed, Seifried (2006) noted the importance—on manylevels—of coaches within the lives of student athletes. Although the importance of “coaches” is not unexpected, additional results reveal the highly variegated nature of student athletes’ perceptions of themselves.

Athletic-related reasons, such as opportunity to win a conference ornational championships or the availability of resources, are still factors influencing the student athletes in this sample. However, Letawsky et al.(2003) noted the importance of non-athletic factors in deciding on a college/university. Regarding this sample, non-athletic factors appear salient,as well. For example, financial reasons (e.g. financial aid/scholarships) andpreparation for a professional career after sports (e.g. availability of major,support services offered to student athletes, and career opportunities after graduation) all had mean scores above 4.00, with almost 80% of respondents listing these non-athletic factors as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ in relationship to their decision to attend their urban-serving university.

Interpreting these findings from an SI framework would focus on the lack of role homogeneity within the sample. That is, these student athletes appear to“see” themselves as having multiple roles, which relates to amultifaceted or holistic identity. As a result, this research is in alignment with Letawsky et al.’s (2003) conclusions that non-athletic factors are important to student athletes, while simultaneously acknowledging that winning and athletic success is important to student athletes. Both of these models,i.e. student athlete development and performance and success, can be promoted effectively during recruiting processes.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this research was to identify the most important college choice factors regarding Division I student athletes attending urban-serving institutions. Utilizing the college choice factors identified by Kankey and Quarterman (2007) and their analysis as a guide, student athletes were surveyedin an attempt to better understand their motives for attending an urban-serving institution. The research contributes to not only academic scholarship, but also advocates for the integration of social theory into athletic department data management strategies and recruiting. Streamlining the recruiting processis important in a collegiate athletic climate that is fiscally constrained and extremely competitive, especially at the Division I, FBS, and FCS levels.Smaller, less visible sports and/or athletic departments must find ways to become more efficient with student athlete recruitment. Additionally,common sensical or popular notions of funneling money into newer athletic facilities and media or technological outlets do not appear productive for all levels of collegiate sport; they are not a panacea for recruiting barriers nordo they automatically translate into traditional definitions of success. While these highly popular endeavors are important to maintaining a visible athletic department profile, this research hypothesizes—based upon the aforementioned results—they should not be viewed as the most productive recruiting tools. This research has identified how multifaceted student athletes may very well be, and that a commitment to a holistic student development model may be an efficient recruiting tool for student athletes,especially within Division I, urban-serving universities.

Limitations & future research

As with any research, there are limitations that should be identified.Firstly, the university student athlete population that was surveyed did notinclude a football team, which not only decreased the number of potentialsurvey respondents, but also limits the generalizability of the results. Additionally, using a Division I athletic department also decreases thegeneralizability of the research. Future research should extend the college choice factor scales to include FBS and FCS schools. Focusing on urban-serving institutions is a productive endeavor, but more research needs to be doneinvolving the athletic departments in these types of colleges/universities.According the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, there are almost 50 nationally recognized urban-serving schools (Great cities, great universities,n.d.), many of which fund athletic programs.

Another limitation involves extrapolating group level summaries (such asmeans of college choice factors) to the individualistic level. SI recognizes the importance of group dynamics upon the individual. However, recruiting and the decision to attend one particular university is a decision that ultimately comes down to a single person, as evidenced in Hossler and Gallagher’s(1987) model, which focuses on the individualistic decision. Student athlete recruitment is a dynamic social psychological process that appears to be acombination of many factors. Sole reliance upon the factors identified in this research would be a disservice to not only collegiate sport practitioners, butalso the recruited student athletes.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT

Division I student athletes see themselves as more than solely athletes;they have many “roles” to play throughout a given day, week,semester, or season. These roles include, but are not limited to: the athleterole (wanting program success), the social role with others (coachrelationships and social atmosphere of the team), and the student role(focusing on academics and preparing for a professional career after sports).It is important for collegiate sport practitioners involved in recruiting torealize that funneling resources exclusively into media/technology outlets orfacilities does not appear to be efficient or productive recruiting tools. Instead, these practitioners during recruiting efforts should focus on:programs for student success, professional preparation opportunities,highlighting the social and personal relationships within their athletic department/program, and programmatic success. The aforementioned focal pointsillustrate not only holistic student athlete development but also present athletic departments an opportunity for increasing campus wide collaborative efforts.

Of particular importance to urban-serving universities and athleticadministrators, the factor “location of the university” had a meanof 3.86 (midpoint of scale, M=3.00) with over 66% of respondents indicating itwas ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ to them. It could be interpreted—cautiously, of course—that the stigma of the urban environment education as a disadvantage is unfounded and that, to some studentsor majors, the urban-serving mission and context could be perceived as a unique advantage.

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