Given that I began my freshman year at Penn 25 years ago (!), I'm old enough to be several generations removed from this current crop of college students, in terms of what moves them to select a particular school. To be specific, I count four.
I was really into business in high school, so I literally looked up the top undergraduate business schools in the country (probably on US News and World Report), and that informed the vast majority of my college applications: Penn, Berkeley, Michigan, and MIT were four of the six schools I applied to, and all had nationally ranked undergraduate business programs. The fact that they were located in Philadelphia, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Cambridge was secondary and practically irrelevant; for me, and I know this is true for many of my peers who were similarly into whatever it is they wanted to study. (One of my closest friends, an engineering geek, applied to Rice despite having no information on or feelings about Houston.)
I lived in fairly spartan accommodations during my four years at Penn, but not long after I graduated they and other schools started to really spruce up their on-campus amenities. Gone were unrenovated and dingy dorms, and in their place sprouted up comfy rooms and spacious lounges with flat screen TVs, as well as state-of-the-art fitness facilities, rock climbing walls, and gourmet dining options. Affluent boomers and their kids would settle for nothing less.
Cities enjoyed a renaissance starting about 15 years ago, and so place began to matter in the college selection process. You wanted to go to Wellesley (or NYU or UW or UT), yes, but you also reveled in the thought of spending four years in Boston (or Greenwich Village or Seattle or Austin). Schools had always mentioned their locations as a selling point, but now this elevated in stature in marketing materials and sales pitches.
Place still counts with today's 18-year-olds, but what matters is not as much partaking of local amenities and is more so about engaging in a locality's societal issues. Today's youth want to connect with and participate in the contemporary struggle over race or inequality or power or injustice, and they see the city their school is in as the laboratory where they will "study" for four years. More and more universities are creating formal avenues for this, whether academic or programmatic, and are hyping these outlets as they woo prospectives.
I'm being simplistic here, of course, but it is interesting to see how both students and universities evolve over time in response to expectations and trends. It makes me wonder how I would decide where to go if I was 18 again, and how my kids will choose where to spend their undergraduate years. By then, who knows how many generations of preferences will have passed.