The “Sibling Factor” in College Choice

High school seniors are influenced by many factors when selecting a college to attend but new research suggests an additional influence: siblings. Researchers from Harvard* found that an older sibling’s college choice had a measurable impact on younger kids in the house, particularly if the siblings were the same gender, close in age and academic ability. The study found that fully 20% of siblings follow their older brother or sister to the same university and fully 31% applied to that same university.

Siblings and college choice

This pattern happened in my house and it is easy to see why. The younger child visits their older brother’s college for move-in day or family weekend. Over a couple of years that university looms large in family discussions and perhaps there are regular visits. By the time the younger siblings is ready to apply, their older brother’s or sister’s school has a familiar feel and if their sibling has a good experience, they too may develop positive feelings. The older sibling’s college is “the model” of a college in their and, perhaps, their parent’s minds. The report quotes Michelle Obama as mentioning that she applied to Princeton largely because her older brother had been recruited there for basketball.

The report found that:

Data on 1.6 million sibling pairs of SAT‐takers reveals that younger and older siblings’ choices are very closely related. …Conditional on their own academic skill and other characteristics, younger siblings are about 15 percentage points more likely to enroll in four‐year colleges or highly competitive colleges if their older siblings do so first. These findings vary little by family income, race or proximity to four‐year colleges.

As the researchers note, high school students select their colleges based on a very large and complex set of factors from tuition cost and proximity, to recent sporting triumphs and how many essays are required on the application. But until Goodman, et al, looked at the role of siblings, little research had been done on the effects of family.

The sibling effect is not just limited to the precise college but also the type of college. “If an older sibling enrolls in a four-year college, the younger sibling is something like 16 percentage points more likely to do so,” lead researcher Joshua Goodman is quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying. “If the older sibling enrolls in a highly competitive college, the younger sibling is something like 19 percentage points more likely to.”

The researchers speculate on a number of reasons the sibling effect may be in place. They suggest that siblings may enjoy each other’s company, carpool to school together, take advantage of family tuition discount or may have a legacy advantage in admissions.

*Goodman, Joshua, Michael Hurwitz, Jonathan Smith, and Julia Fox. “The Relationship Between Siblings’ College Choices: Evidence from One Million SAT-Taking Families.” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP14-043, September 2014.

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