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Going off to college for the first time is often the most significant turning point in an individual’s life to date. It marks not only a change of education, but a change of community. This can be exciting or intimidating, or both all at once. That probably explains the results of new research which finds that students are much more inclined to choose a particular college if an older sibling went to the same school.
The research, which was published by Princeton University, draws on data from Chile, Croatia, and Sweden—three countries with markedly different cultures, economies, and higher-education systems. Yet the researchers find evidence in all three nations that younger siblings follow their older brothers and sisters to the same colleges. As the authors write, “students are between 9.5 and 15.5 percentage points more likely to apply to the college where their sibling is enrolled and between 4.5 and 9 percentage points more likely to enroll there.”
Though the countries are different in many respects, they all have one feature in common: a centralized system for college admissions. For instance, all college-bound students in Croatia submit their high school transcripts and other materials to a single platform, then rank the ten colleges and majors they would most like to attend. An algorithm then allocates students to available programs based on their preferences and credentials.
For programs with too many applicants and too few slots, there will naturally be some students who just barely get in to a program, and some who just barely do not. These two groups should be pretty similar for all intents and purposes, so comparing them can isolate the effects of enrolling in a particular program. This is the method the authors use to gauge how an older sibling’s college choices affect his younger sibling—and isolate the sibling dynamic from other factors such as the geographical proximity or reputation of the school.
While the United States has no centralized college-admissions system to test the influence of older siblings so surgically, other evidence suggests that the pattern of younger siblings following their older siblings to college holds in America. Across the world, prospective college students are drawn to familiarity. That’s one reason, for instance, that 67% of college students attend an institution within 50 miles of their home.
Given that college marks a decisive break with a student’s earlier life, it can be comforting to attend a school where you already know someone, especially a close family member. The importance of existing social connections to students making college decisions is a fact that U.S. schools seeking to increase representation of qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds may wish to consider.