college decision process

College Decision Process Research

Research Paper: Qualitative Research Project: College Decision Process for Student-Athlete - Prospective international student-athletes and domestic student-athletes select colleges for different reasons (Czekanski & Barnhill, 2015; Love & Kim, 2011; Zonder, 2013). The purpose of the qualitative interview study is to more clearly understand the college selection process for domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes. Other than the study by Popp et al. (2011), the number of participants in the research studies on the recruiting process has been with smaller groups; therefore, more research is needed on the topic.

The successful recruitment of top-level student-athletes can make a difference in the athletic success of a program. Staff members at higher education institutions can refine their recruiting methods for both domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes if the factors related to the college selection process are recognized.

Qualitative Research Project: College Decision Process for Student-Athletes


The qualitative study aims to explore the college selection process for and domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes. There has been extensive research on the college selection process; however, little research compares the significant factors in the decision-making process for domestic student-athletes versus international student-athletes. The qualitative study will explore the college selection process; the results from the study of the two populations will be explored and compared for commonalities and differences. Effective recruiting strategies for higher education institutions can be implemented based on this research and similar studies.

In this project, three student-athletes participated in semi-structured interviews to discuss the major factors in the college decision-making process. The participants were from two different NCAA Division I institutions in the Midwestern part of the United States and included two domestic student-athletes and one international student-athlete. All three student-athletes were enrolled in school at the time of the interview, and all three competed in the sport of track and field. The interviews with the three student-athletes were recorded with the permission of the participants. One verbatim transcript of an interview segment is included in this qualitative research project.

After a brief set of background questions, five main questions directly related to the college selection process were asked, with one follow-up question. The interview questions had one central theme; what are the important factors in the college selection process for student-athletes? The background questions focus on establishing if the participant was a domestic student-athlete or an international student-athlete and where they are currently enrolled in school in the United States. The main questions for the qualitative research project included:

Describe the ‘must haves’ you had to have in college?

What were the biggest factors in your college decision process?

What were the other factors involved in your decision process?

Can you share the factors that eliminated schools?

What advice would you have for high school seniors about making a college decision?

The closing question focused on the recruiting process and whether the student-athlete made any personal connections with any current student-athletes on the team or a staff member. The responses were analyzed and evaluated to represent the findings discussed throughout the project. Theoretical and practical recruiting strategies for college coaches and other faculty members can be incorporated based on the findings of this research and similar studies on the college selection process of student-athletes.

College Decision Process for Student-Athletes

There are more than 460,000 student-athletes competing at National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) institutions including over 20,000 international student-athletes (NCAA, 2020). Both domestic and international student-athletes go through a recruiting process before making a final college decision. Recruiting top talent can make a difference in team success for collegiate programs. Many of the top athletic programs in the NCAA have both domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes. Coaches have pressure to win and bring championships to the school, and by adding a star athlete, the program can instantly get better. Examining the primary factors in the decision-making process for student-athletes will help higher education institutions understand the best practices and methods for successful recruiting.

Literature Review

The final decision-making process has been evaluated in several studies.  Research has suggested that domestic student-athletes recruiting process deciding factors compared to international student-athletes were very different. Studies have shown that the essential factors for domestic student-athletes included academic reputation, future employment opportunities, geographic location, facilities, and comfort level with the team (Czekanski & Barnhill, 2015; Popp, 2011). A recent study had similar conclusions to previous research with academic programs and location leading the decision-making process; athletic variables such as coaching reputation and team factors were also important (Finley & Fountain, 2021). Domestic student-athletes are knowledgeable about their final college choice while still in high school and are familiar with the specific attributes of the school (Popp, 2011). The least likely factors influencing domestic student-athletes included media exposure, knowing someone on the team, having friends at the institution, and relationships developed with team members during the recruiting process (Czekanski & Barnhill, 2015).

International student-athletes travel from outside the United States for the academic and athletic experiences they cannot receive in their home country. Research by Love and Kim (2011) found that international student-athletes “tended to be attracted by the fact the U.S. system offered a unique opportunity to obtain a university degree while continuing to play a sport at a high level” (p. 100). International student-athletes found financial assistance, the coach-athlete relationship, athletic development, and the idealistic expectations of the experience were the motivating factors to attend school in the United States (Chard & Potwarka, 2017; Garrett et al., 2020; Popp et al., 2011). International student-athletes listed financial assistance from scholarships and out-of-pocket costs as the most important factors in the decision-making process in multiple studies (Chard & Potwarka, 2017; Garrett et al., 2020; Rodriguez, 2014;). The influence of the primary recruiting coach was another significant influence in the selection process for international student-athletes. (Garrett et al., 2020; Popp et al., 2011). International student-athletes had strong connections with coaches that communicated often and overall had a good personality (Chard & Potwarka, 2017; Garrett et al., 2020). Coaches that explained the logistics of the recruiting process also had an advantage, Bentzinger (2016) stated, “the coach became extremely valuable in the process because he or she guided the international student-athlete regarding what needed to be accomplished in order to be declared eligible by the NCAA and receive admittance to the institution” (pp. 140-141). 


Despite the large number of student-athletes that participate in college athletics, the recruiting environment is very competitive, especially for the top athletes. Understanding the primary decision-making factors will aid institutions when recruiting domestic and international prospects. Studies found that domestic and international students have different parameters that influence the final college choice. In multiple studies of domestic student-athletes, the research confirmed factors such as location, academic prestige, and athletic considerations as major factors in the decision-making procedure (Bridges, 2019; Czekanski & Barnhill, 2015; Finley & Fountain, 2021). Numerous studies revealed that international student-athletes focused on scholarship value and the relationship with the recruiting coach as the most important considerations when deciding on a college (Chard & Potwarka, 2017; Garrett et al., 2020; Popp et al., 2011). The number one factor was the value of the scholarship, including the final cost to the student-athlete (Chard & Potwarka, 2017; Garrett et al., 2020). The international student-athletes committed to schools when the primary recruiting coach communicated the required information frequently and had a good personality (Bentzinger, 2016; Garrett et al., 2020; Popp et al., 2011).

Future Research

Domestic and international student-athletes select colleges for different reasons; based on the research findings, coaches can develop recruiting strategies for domestic and international student-athletes. More research on domestic student-athletes could reveal specifics on the selection process related to location, academic influences, and athletic factors. Bentzinger (2016) stated that research “may provide new information that can be beneficial to international student-athletes, coaches, administrators, athletics department support staff members, decision-makers on policies that affect international student-athletes” (p. 17). Additional research on international student-athletes can provide insight into financial factors. These coaching attributes are desired by prospects and other influences that are important in the decision-making process. Understanding why student-athletes select an institution will improve the recruiting process for higher education institutions, ultimately helping the program be successful.

Literature Review Update

This qualitative research project will address the primary factors in the college selection process for domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes. The data will be evaluated; then, the two groups will be compared for similarities and differences in the primary factors in the decision-making process. After the study, recommendations to improve the recruiting process will be offered based on this study and similar outcomes from other studies.


Reflexivity is a form of introspection related to qualitative research. It can include subjectivity based on the researcher’s background, views, and assumptions during the research process. Like everyone else, I have unique social, academic, and real-life experiences that may impact my research. Here is a brief background about myself that could effect my research. I was born and raised in Chicago on the southwest side of the city with frequent gang violence in my neighborhood. My family moved to the south suburbs of Chicago when I was in elementary school. When I started school in Bridgeview, Illinois, I was behind academically and needed special assistance to catch up as I transitioned into my new school. At home, my father spoke little English; he immigrated from Greece; unfortunately, he had a work accident at the steel factory and passed away shortly after when I was 10 years old. My mother worked with the Cook County Sheriff’s Police as a warrant clerk and was around law enforcement her entire life. She decided to join the Chicago Police Department at 45 years old when I was in high school, and we moved back into Chicago. Watching how hard my mother worked to support our family helped me understand the meaning of dedication. I have two older brothers that were strong influences in my life that helped me stay focused on academic and athletic success. Overcoming the struggles related to being in a low-income family without resources shaped my work ethic and desire to want a better life for myself.

In high school, I did not have many of the same privileges as my classmates, but I had a strong desire to succeed. When I went to college, the discrepancy between my upbringing and the other students was even more noticeable. When I was a student-athlete at Indiana University, I spent time studying to complete my degree in education, and I competed in track and field. In my athletic career as a Hoosier, I won two individual Big Ten Championships in the shot put and helped my team win four Big Ten titles.

After college, I started teaching high school in Wisconsin; one of the first questions I was asked was ‘What are you?’, referring to my nationality; it must have been my darker completion. In that region of the country, it was primarily families of German and Scandinavian descent. After my experience teaching, I worked at three universities coaching track and field for the next 27 years. I have traveled the world recruiting and coaching athletes; I have personally coached athletes from five continents. My exposure to different cultures and people helped shape my worldview.

I am interested in exploring international students, including international student-athletes in my research because of my background in recruiting and coaching international student-athletes. I want to understand the factors in the decision-making process to attend a school and the transition to life in the United States for international students and international student-athletes. My background will be different from the international students I am interested in researching since I completed high school in the United States.

Reflexivity Update

I have successfully recruited domestic students from New York to California to attend the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska. Internationally, I have recruited and coached athletes on five different continents and traveled as far as South Africa to visit prospects. I have over 25 years in higher education; I may have some bias during the interview process because of my experience. I have a prior coach-athlete relationship with one of the participants; however, we both believed that would not interfere with the results.


The qualitative study involved interviewing student-athletes exploring the important factors in the college decision-making process for international student-athletes and domestic student-athletes. The participants included three current NCAA Division 1 student-athletes from two different NCAA Division 1 institutions: the University of Nebraska and Iowa State University. The track and field coaches of the student-athletes were contacted and asked to seek participants for the voluntary research study. Two coaches provided four names; however, one student-athlete decided not to participate in the study after she was contacted by email with a preliminary questionnaire. The other three participants completed the questionnaire and returned the document via email. After the questionnaire was received, a follow-up email with multiple dates and time options was given to the participants. Each participant confirmed the date and time to be voluntarily interviewed after the options were given. The student-athletes that participated in the study included one junior domestic female student-athlete, one junior domestic male student-athlete, and one senior international male student-athlete in his fifth year of school.

The method of data collection was through a semi-structured interview process using an iPhone X on speaker mode. Each participant was interviewed individually; the interviewer was at home; the participants were at their own home near their institution's campus. After a brief introduction, the interview started with the first primary question; what were the must haves you had to have in a college? Follow up questions to discuss other factors that influenced the college decision-making process were implemented. An inquiry regarding the process of eliminating schools was part of the interview and advice for current student-athletes going through the recruiting process. The final question revolved around any personal connections made during the recruiting process with other student-athletes or staff members that influenced the decision-making process. Each interview took between 15-25 minutes and was recorded on the interviewer’s secure password-protected computer, Zoom, and a second iPhone using the app Voice Memos. The interviewer also took notes outlining the main points of the college selection process covered by each student-athlete.

For each interview, the audio from the Zoom recording was added to Final Cut Pro X, a picture was added to the audio, then a .mov file was created. The .mov file was added to the website, which automatically transcribed the file. The transcription was added to a word document and reviewed for accuracy. The backup audio recordings from the app Voice Memos were not used and deleted after each interview was transcribed. The interviewer used a composition notebook to hand enter field notes that included the main points of the interview or surprising information from each participant. Part of the interview with the international student-athlete was transcribed for the qualitative research project.

Data Analysis and Findings

The interviews were conducted in November of 2021; the data was compiled and analyzed during the same month. The information was interpreted and evaluated by the interviewer. The answers were grouped into categories based on the frequency of similar responses from the three student-athletes.

The primary factors in the college decision-making process for domestic student-athletes included finances, academics, campus influences, and athletic considerations. Both domestic respondents listed academic options and financial considerations as two of three main variables. The domestic participants mentioned the academic variables such as school reputation, availability of specific majors, post-collegiate academic opportunities, and the educational value of the school. The financial factors focused on the cost of school, scholarship availability in academics and athletics, as well as the job opportunities on or near campus. 

Campus influences were also mentioned by both domestic student-athletes but for very different reasons. The campus discussions centered on the overall feel of the environment, size of the campus, facilities, social activities, and proximity to home. One of the student-athletes, preferred to as DA, included the campus atmosphere, the respondent felt a sense of belonging, and had fun during the recruiting visit. The responses of DA are similar to the factors listed by female student-athletes in a study by Fountain and Finley (2020). The other domestic student-athlete, known by the alias DB, mentioned campus influences but focused on the school's location specifically because of the influence of family members and friends. DB stated, “I really want my parents and friends to be able to watch me compete; if I attend school far away from home, they would never see me, and I hate the idea of that”. The athletic factors such as coaching, team success, athletic facilities, and the opportunity to compete were mentioned by domestic student-athletes but were not considered top priorities; in fact, both domestic student-athletes remarked that athletics was most likely fourth on the list of most important r in the decision-making process. The interviewer was surprised that athletic considerations did not rank as one of the main factors in the college selection process for the domestic student-athletes in the study. Other research on domestic student-athletes revealed that academics, location, athletic facilities, communication, and feeling comfortable are important factors in the decision-making process (Czekanski & Barnhill, 2015; Love & Kim, 2011). The findings in previous research are similar to the responses of the two domestic student-athletes, with one exception, several studies listed athletic facilities as an important factor, however, this was not the case in this qualitative research project. Schools located in a big city were eliminated early in the process; both domestic student-athletes wanted to live in a traditional college town.

During his interview, the international student-athlete, known as IC, revealed that coaching, financial assistance, and athletic facilities were the major factors in the college decision-making process. IC stated, “I wanted to make sure that I agreed with the coach and the training style”. IC also wanted the financial package that included covering the cost of attendance for the school, “I didn't really have money, so the big one was how much scholarship I could get”. IC also mentioned academic programming as a factor, but it was not a significant variable during the final decision-making process. These findings are similar to an extensive study by Popp et al. (2011) that indicated athletic scholarship and the coach's personality were the two most important aspects related to the college decision-making process. Other studies have indicated that international student-athletes consider scholarship value, communication with the staff, and program success as important factors; this is very similar to the responses in this study (Bentzinger, 2016; Chard & Potwarka, 2017). The international student-athlete narrowed the selection process if schools were in a high crime area or in a liberal environment.

Top Factors








Athletic Facilities




Campus Influences













Discussions and Limitations of the Study

The study's goal was to outline the important factors in the decision-making process for domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes. Overall, the findings align with current research on the important variables in the college decision-making process for domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes.

The domestic student-athletes both prioritized academics; in addition, upon reflection, the international student-athlete would recommend academics as a primary consideration to student-athletes that are looking to participate in sports in college. Campus influences is a collective term used to define such variables as location, environment, social atmosphere, and other external factors not related to athletics or finances. Both domestic student-athletes were influenced by the campus climate but for different reasons. A more detailed look at the factors outside of athletics and finances would further define how campus dynamics could influence the recruiting process.

International student-athletes are attracted to schools in the United States because they blend athletics and academics (Love & Kim, 2011; Zonder, 2013). The international student-athlete population has been increasing recently; now, over 20,000 international athletes participate in sports, accounting for about 5% of the total student-athlete population (NCAA, 2020). The qualitative study confirmed the importance of financial assistance and athletic considerations, specifically, the influence of the recruiting coach in the decision-making process for international student-athletes (Popp et al., 2011).

Like other studies, including domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes, financial support was an important aspect of the college decision-making process (Magnusen et al., 2014; Popp et al., 2011). All the respondents listed financial considerations as a primary determinate in the college selection process; these results complement other studies of student-athletes in sports that do not receive full athletic scholarships (Magnusen et al., 2014; Zonder, 2013).

One limitation related to the data in certain studies is the importance of finances. Some research may not list finances as a variable because athletic scholarships in sports like football, basketball, and volleyball, known collectively as headcount sports, only offer full scholarships. The headcount sports do not offer partial scholarships; they only provide full athletic scholarships at the NCAA Division 1 level, eliminating the financial aspect as part of the decision-making process for the top recruits. Large scholarships are not common in sports like track and field, which all the respondents compete in; therefore, the scholarship amount can be a major factor for athletes outside of the headcount sports.

Implications for Practice

Based on this research and other studies, specific recruiting strategies can be developed for domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes. Recruiting is a perpetual endeavor in higher education and very competitive. Coaches and other faculty members can create an organized system for identifying and recruiting talent early in the process and using proven research strategies to enhance the likelihood of success. Understanding why student-athletes select an institution will improve the recruiting process for higher education institutions, ultimately helping the program be more prosperous.

One of the important influences for domestic student-athletes is the academic experience; the focus should be on the graduation of a high-achieving adult prepared for the next phase of life. In addition, narrowing down what the specific campus influences are for domestic student-athletes, such as the social climate, the feel or atmosphere of the school, or the activities desired outside of athletics, can help the faculty be more productive in the recruiting process.

Further studies on international student-athletes can outline the financial needs of the population. Besides finances, successful recruiting is about building relationships and effective communication from the staff, especially the primary recruiting coach. More research on the attributes required by international student-athletes will boost recruiting endeavors.

Research Process and Personal Reflection

The appropriate research protocols outlined by the instructor were followed. The findings are congruent with other studies on the college selection process. However, a major limitation in this qualitative study was the sample size. The validity of the results can be questioned based on the size of the research study, which only consisted of three participants. One of the student-athletes in the research study I successfully recruited but no longer coach. We discussed his ability to be objective and honest; neither of us thought it would negatively influence the results.

The research helped me gain a better understanding of the recruiting factors in the decision-making of student-athletes. Personally, the topic was interesting since I have recruited domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes for over 25 years. Despite my experience, the importance of the campus environment for domestic student-athletes was surprising, and the information regarding the significant role the recruiting coach plays for international student-athletes.

I hope to move into the academic side of higher education after I complete my degree; with the information I gathered about the differences in the decision-making process for domestic student-athletes and international student-athletes, I will be more successful as a college recruiter. I was able to compare the results and establish similarities and differences among the two populations.

The most challenging part of this assignment was organizing and applying a central research question on my own in a qualitative project. I co-authored a scientific research project to earn my United States Track and Field Association Level 3 Elite Coaching Certificate, which at the time, was only held by five other coaches in the world; however, performing all the work on my own was, at times, overwhelming.


Qualitative Research Project: College Decision Process for Student-Athletes

Higher Education Administration, University of Nebraska

Scott Cappos 




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