School Choice: Family Background


Research has consistently reported that parental involvement is positively related to the academic achievement of their children during their various life stages ranging from childhood to adolescence as well as beyond. The academic benefits associated parental involvement that have been documented in literature include improved language and cognitive skills, higher grade point averages, lower chances of dropping out, and improved grade retention. There is widespread agreement among researchers that parental involvement is a significant predictor of academic success in both elementary and high schools. Moreover, studies have documented benefits of parental involvement with respect to the academic success of young adults and adolescents. In this respect, parent shaving higher expectations for their teenagers, convey these expectations explicitly and encourage their teenagers to work hard towards achieving them can make a significant difference as regards their academic success. 

School choice is one of the most essential ways of parental participation in the education of their children. Parents often select the school that their children attend based on their place of residence. Nevertheless, recently, more parents have been compelled to make clear school choice due to the adoption of specific policies such as vouchers, tax credits, open enrollment, charter schools and magnet schools among others. An important aspect influencing parental school choice is the neighborhood and school attributes. According to Arum, when parents believe that schools found in the neighborhood offer vast opportunities and less risks for their children, they are more likely to choose these schools for their children. On the other hand, when parents are of the believe that the neighborhood is risk and poses danger for their children, they are more likely to take their children to schools that located in other communities they consider safe. The underlying observation is that school choice is primarily influenced by the need to protect children from dangers perceived in the location of the school, which are likely to have a negative impact on the academic achievement of their children.


Despite the fact that research has established that parental education has an impact on the academic achievement of children, there is scanty school choice literature exploring the relationship between parent education and school choice behavior. Another gap in literature that this research study seeks  to address is that, majority of the studies on parental school choice have focused on elementary to high school, with few studies exploring parental influence on college education. Although scholars agree that parental participation plays a vital role in the academic accomplishment of teenagers and young adults, a small number of studies have explored the specific ways through which parents are involved in college education. In addition, the few studies exploring parental involvement often do so from the perspective of parents. With colleges reporting increasing parental involvement in the choice of college, it is important to have an understanding of the impact of parental educational experience. This is specifically essential for colleges to have an understanding of the student segments that are likely to be influenced by parents. The purpose of this research is to investigate the various factors that influence college choice in order to determine whether parents influence this decision and the specific ways through parents are involved in decisions regarding college education. This study adopts a fresh approach by exploring parental involvement from the view of students rather than parents. This is important in exploring the opinions and attitudes of students towards the participation of their parents in education. To this end, there is the need to explore the various factors that influencing college choice from the perspective of students, which is the focus of this study. Moreover, this study investigates the trends in parental involvement in the education of their children at various educational stages. 

Brief Literature Review

There is vast literature on the factors that influence parental school choice. Notable differences have been reported among parents who are involved in school choice and non-choosers in various aspects including social networks educational priorities, parental involvement, satisfaction with the preceding school, and demographics. Carter pointed out that choosers differ from non-choosers in terms of race, income, and level of education. In addition, they are less satisfied with the preceding school that they child attended before being involved in school choice. Parents who opt to engage in school choice have also reported higher levels of involvement in the education of their children; as a result, they are more interested in educational priorities linked to academic success such as the achievement of students. Furthermore, parents involved in school choice tend to have social networks that enable involvement in the school choice process.

With respect to demographics, studies have reported that the level of education of parents, race of student, and the level of family income are crucial factors influencing the choice of private schools. As Arum reported, parents with higher levels of education tend to place emphasis on educational achievement; thus, their actions and attitudes often show their concern in their child’s education. Simply stated, parents having higher educational achievement emphasize the importance of education; thus, they have a tendency to make informed decisions and choices regarding the education of their children. Researchers have consistently reported a positive association with the level of education of parents and the prospect of enrolling children to private schools. Other demographic factors that have been found to be significant in choosing private schools include family income and the race of the child. In terms of family income, Bifulco, Ladd, & Ross reports that a higher family income enhances the prospect of affording private schools; as a result, families having more income are more likely to enroll their children in private schools when compared to families with low levels of income. It is also important to note that high family income is linked to high levels of parental education. In terms of race, studies have reported that Hispanic and African Americans are less likely to be enrolled in private education when compared to whites; nevertheless, when religion is controlled, African Americans and whites have the same chances of enrolling in private education.

The role of parental satisfaction in school choice behavior has also been explored in literature. Specifically, studies have shown that the choice of schools by parents is influenced by the extent to which they were satisfied with the previous that the child was enrolled. In most cases, dissatisfaction often results to a change in school choice with the hope of becoming more satisfied with a new choice. In addition, research has shown that choosers are more satisfied when compared to non-choosers. Another important factor that has been explored in school choice research is parental participation, with vast of the existing research reporting a link between school choice and parental involvement in the sense that parents who choose schools for their children tend to have higher levels of involvement. Carter outlined the reasons for choosers’ involvement in the education of their children. First, choosers have a perceived role that encompasses being involved in the schooling of their child. The second reason is that choosers feel the need to assist their child be successful in education, which implies that they are of the belief that they are capable of making a difference with respect to the education of their child.

Literature in parental schools has explored the priorities that parent take into consideration with respect to the education of their child. They include safety, characteristics of the school, convenience and academic priorities. As regards safety, Neild reported that it is a major concern for parents from low income and minority groups when compared to white and middle class parents. The characteristics of the school such as diversity, neighborhood and size also play an important role in influencing the decision to choose a school by parents. For instance, Bifulco, Ladd, & Ross, showed that parents having a college education consider teaching values and diversity as being vital concerns with respect to the education of their children. This is not the case with parents from low-income and minority groups. Convenience is concerned with the distance between home and school and issues associated with transportation. This is an important issue of concern for parents because of the resources needed for transportation of children to and from school.

It is evident that vast of the literature on school choice is limited to elementary schools, with little emphasis placed on college education despite the increasing parental involvement in high school and college education. This study augments existing literature on school choice by exploring parental influences on the choice of colleges. This study investigates the various influences of college choice in an attempt to delineate the specific influences of parents. It is hypothesized that, “when parents make an educational decision for their children, the decision is heavily influenced by parents’ past academic experiences and their religious faith.”


A qualitative approach was adopted for this study because of the need to conduct in-depth investigations into the issue of parental influence on the various aspects of college education. The choice for the qualitative design stemmed from the fact that the research problem was not structured; as a result, there was the need to make use of flexible research methods in order facilitate a comprehensive investigation into the phenomenon under investigation. The aspects that contribute to the uniqueness of the qualitative research in this specific context include providing a broad understanding of the study context, using interactive methods to gather data, and facilitating the exploration of new concepts and issues. The qualitative design was executed using semi-structured interviews conducted on a face-to-face basis with six participants. The participants comprised of college students. Semi-structured interviews refers to a qualitative form of inquiry characterized by researchers using pre-determined set of open questions to guide the discussion with participants while at the same time providing opportunities to follow up on issues emerging in the course of the discussion. The advantage of using semi-structured interviews is that they are sufficiently flexible for the researcher to follow up on responses in order to gather comprehensive information. An interview guide was developed to help in guiding the discussions and captured various aspects including the most important factors influencing participant’s choice of four-year university; influence and involvement of parents at their various stages in education; educational background of parents; and the educational background of their friends and how this influenced their college decisions. Data obtained from the interviews were transcribed. They were later analyzed using thematic analysis. This entailed looking for dominant themes and comparing the responses provided by participants with respect to important issues discussed in the interview. In order to enhance reliability, the study used three interviewers.


The findings of this study are organized in accordance to themes that emerged from the interview data. 

Most Important Factors that Influenced the Decision to Enroll in a Four-Year University

A common theme expressed by all participants regarding the decision to join a four-year college is the expectations from their parents. Three out of the six students who participated in the interview cited the important role that their parents played influencing the decision to enroll in a four-year college. For instance, Allison cited that her parents had gone to college; thus, it was expected of her to follow the same path. She stated, I think part of going to a four-year university is you grow up knowing kind of without questioning that you are going to college. Coming from a family where your parents go to college and it is always somewhat expected of you…” Similarly, Maddie stated that she had no option but to go to college. She said, “Definitely my parents because it was never really an option for me to go to college. [Like] it was inevitable so that was definitely a driving factor…” Apart from setting expectations to go to college, another role that parents played in that decision involved encouraging their children to pursue college education. One respondent, Amber, noted that her parents encouraged her to pursue education beyond high school. Amber also noted that she acknowledges the importance of education because her parents are both working in the medical profession. Amber stated:

Well, I think that I [don’t] want to say that my parents pushed me to go to a four year university but they definitely encouraged me and my sister to pursue our education further than a high school degree because both of them work in the medical field and growing up they kind of showed us how it is important to have a college education..

Majority of the respondents are appreciative of the role that their parents played in their college education. For instance, Barota said, “my mom, really wanted me to go to college and graduate since she did not get the opportunity to do that. They were both so excited at my graduation, probably since it took me longer than most to finish…”

Another important factor cited by respondents that influenced the decision to enroll in a four-year university relates to the influence of family and people around. For instance, Barota, a recent human resources graduate from San Jose State University was of the view that going to college was best way to secure a well-paying job and be able to raise a family and live happily; this worldview was shaped through observing the people around him. Other factors cited by respondents that were important in influencing their decision to go to a four-year college included college scholarship as mentioned by Maddie; the need to be successful later in life as mentioned by Katie; and athletic scholarships as mentioned by Amber. 

One respondent, Meg Nichols, a current sociology senior at Tufts University in MA mentioned that the society expects one to go to college. According to her, “Everyone constantly talked about college, especially when we got into high school. Every conversation with other parents or adults around me was about where I wanted to go to school, what I wanted to major in, would I join a sorority or play sports, and on and on…” This societal influence was an important factor in the decision to go to college. Similar views were held by Barota, who was of the view that the success of other people in the society played a great deal in influencing his decision to enroll in a four-year college. He said:

I guess I would see some adults at church who had their lives together and were very successful, and compare them with those who were struggling, and knew I did not want to struggle when I was older. Emma, Alan, and Anthony were all pretty influential because they were all in college while I was starting high school.

Parental Influence in the Various Stages in Education

Nearly respondents mentioned the influence of their parents in all stages in education right from elementary school, to high school and college. For example, Allison says that her parents are education-oriented and believed that they only way they could get out of poverty is through education; as a result, they always encouraged her to study further than they had. Allison said, “They both came from families that pretty poor and were the first generation of college goers and knew it was sort of your ticket out of lower class and even middle class. So they always wanted me to go further than they had gone and be some sort of professional and get out of the middle class…”  

The survey also show that parents are the largest influences with respect to the decision to join college. All respondents cited the important role that their parents had played with respect to their college education. Allison admitted that her parents are her biggest influences. Amber, another respondent also expressed similar views by stating, “Well I would definitely say my parents were big influencing factors on me… I mean they all saw that I had an interest in academics and school so they always wanted me to. They kind of encouraged me to pursue going to college as well as trying to figure out a way to add gymnastics into it…”

Another important theme from the findings of the survey relates to the role that religion plays in influencing the choice to enroll in private schools. Allison argued that her parents were very religious and wanted to instill a religious background on their children, which resulted in them her being sent to a private school, mostly catholic schools all the way through kindergarten and elementary school.

The educational background of parents was also identified as a significant factor that influenced college choice among the respondents who took part in the survey. An important observation is that respondents who cited their parents as being their biggest influences also had parents who had college education, or at least parents who valued college education. Essentially, respondents cited the achievements of their parents as a motivating factor for enrolling in a four-year college. 


Summary of Key Findings

It evident from interview that parents play an important role in influencing the decision and choice to go to college. Three ways of parental influence can be delineated from the responses. First, parents set an expectation for their children to go to college, which implies that they do not have any other option but to proceed with college education. Second, parents play a role in encouraging their children to study hard beyond high school and go to college. Third, parents are perceived as a source of inspiration for going to college. In other words, parents who went through college education highlight the importance of college education. For most respondents, the issue was not if they were going to college, but where. An inference from this observation is that did not have an option but to go to college. The influence of others who are successful in the society has also been mentioned by respondents. In this respect, respondents were of the view that those who had gone to college were largely successful; as a result, they perceived college as the path to success, which in influenced their decision to join college. Other important factors that respondents considered to influence their decision to join four-year universities included athletic scholarships, the need to be successful in life, and college scholarship. Nevertheless, of all these factors, it is imperative point out that parental influence was considered the most significant by the respondents. The findings from the survey also show the influence of religion on school choice. Specifically, religious parents tend to send their children to private schools in order to instill a religious background on their children. 

Contributions of Findings

This study has highlighted important role that parents play in the choice of four-year college. Previous studies have focused on the influence of parents on elementary and high school. However, the findings of this study have revealed that parents are the biggest influencers of the choice of college indirectly and directly. Directly, parents encourage students in the choice of college. Indirectly, the achievement of parents linked to college education inspires students to choose four-year college. In addition, the expectations that parents have imply that going to a four-year college is not an option, but a must. Essentially, the notion of going to college is cultivated at a young age; thus, the issue is where to go to college rather than if. This study has only highlighted the influential role played by parents but has not pointed out the specific criteria that parents impose on their children with respect to college choice. Therefore, further research on a large scale is needed to determine the factors that influence the choice of four-year colleges. Based on this pilot study, it can be suggested that the decision to join a four-year college is primarily influenced by parents. Respondents did not mention other aspects such as location, convenience and cost, which are potential areas for further research.

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