The study—entitled "True for Your School? How Changing Reputations Alter Demand for Selective U.S. Colleges"—concluded that universities' rankings have a significant impact on each schools' recruitment process. Data indicated that the effects—which include increases in application numbers, academic qualifications and geographic diversity—are most important for colleges ranked in the top 20 or 25 for each category.
"Some of the benefits you get from going into higher education are these non-pecuniary benefits...things about enjoying life and consuming valuable things in life," said Randall Reback, an author of the study and associate professor of economics at Barnard College.
To explore the effects of a college's quality of life ranking, the study examined eight of the Princeton Review's "Top 20" lists—Happy Students, Least Happy Students, Most Beautiful Campus, Unsightly/Tiny Campus, Party Schools, Stone Cold Sober Schools and Jock Schools.
Researchers found that making the Happy Students or Beautiful Campus lists resulted in a roughly 3 percent increase in both the number of applications and the academic competitiveness of a school’s incoming class. Conversely, ranking among the Top 20 for the Least Happy Students or Unsightly/Tiny Campus categories led to more than a 5 percent decrease in the applicant pool and its competitiveness. Being included in the Top 20 Party Schools, Stone-Cold Sober Schools or Jock Schools did not appear to have a statistically significant effect on the overall number of applicants.
“Interestingly, placing in the Top 20 Party Schools predicts a decline in the out-of-state student share of about 8 percent or 9 percent,” wrote New York University research analyst Molly Alter, an author of the study, in the report. “This suggests that local students might be attracted to a partying reputation, or more distant students and their parents might be dissuaded by a partying reputation.”
Academic rankings published by both U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review had very similar effects—schools that are ranked as one of the U.S. News top 25 schools, such as Duke, are associated with a 6 to 10 percent increase in applications. In addition, these schools saw an approximately 10 percent increase in out-of-state applicants, resulting in much higher geographic diversity.
Reback added that of the schools that made the rankings lists, the precise numerical order within the top 20 or 25 was not very significant. He noted the notoriously unscientific methods with which the Princeton Review traditionally creates its rankings lists.
“These ratings aren’t necessarily determined in an objective way," Reback said. "It’s important to have a regulatory agency that makes sure that colleges aren’t just buying top 10 places on a list. Colleges should realize that making the list is very important but your exact place on the list isn’t too critical.”
Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said the admissions office has seen a significant increase in the number of applicants to Duke in the past three or four years, but college rankings are simply an initial step in the process.
“Students are aware of the ranking, but I’m not sure that they are the ultimate factor,” Wasiolek said. “I’ve never thought the ranking was as important as the experience.”
Wasiolek said that data indicated students were more greatly influenced by friends, family members, college counselors and campus visits. Additionally, prospective students preferred to inquire about the reputations of specific academic departments—indicating a greater level of investment in the quality of their personal education experiences rather than the reputation of the school as a whole.
Wasiolek said the University's prestige has a more reliable source than U.S. News.
“The success of prior graduates has really made a very firm foundation for current and future grads,” Wasiolek said. “That’s probably more of a factor than the total rankings.”