Is there an impact on a college's admissions indicators as a result of its position in the U.S. News America's Best Colleges rankings? Is the influence of the rankings different depending on whether the school is a large research university or a smaller liberal arts college? How big could these effects be, and are they statistically significant?
In "Getting on the Front Page: Organizational Reputation, Status Signals, and the Impact of U.S. News and World Report on Student Decisions," recently published in Research in Higher Education, Nicholas A. Bowman of the University of Notre Dame and Michael N. Bastedo of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor analyzed the U.S. News college rankings to try to answer those questions for top college administrators. Their article joins a rapidly expanding body of literature on college rankings and the impact the rankings might have on colleges and universities.
Their article's three key points are:
"First, moving onto the front page (the Top 50) of the U.S. News and World Report rankings results in a substantial improvement in admissions indicators in the following year, and these effects are apparent for both national universities and liberal arts colleges.
Second, once institutions have reached the top tier, moving up in the rankings provides noteworthy benefits for institutions in the top 25 and among national universities, but this impact is weaker or non-existent among liberal arts colleges and the bottom half of the top tier. Consumers of liberal arts colleges may not share the general perceptions of the overall population. One hypothesis is that these families are far more knowledgeable about higher education than are general consumers of higher education and therefore less sensitive to magazine rankings.
Third, tuition costs and instructional expenditures also serve as markers of institutional quality and prestige that yield improvements in subsequent admissions outcomes. These markers are influential primarily among liberal arts colleges and the lower half of the top tier. Consistent with the notion that potential consumers of liberal arts colleges are savvier in their decision-making, liberal arts colleges are the only type of institution in which admissions indicators are responsive to a proxy for institutional quality: expenditures on student instruction."
What is the nature of these benefits to colleges, and are they significant? According to the paper, appearing on the "front page" decreases a school's acceptance rate by 3.6 percentage points and results in a 2.3 percentage point increase in the proportion of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The "front page" effect was not significant for the average SAT scores, amounting to a 1.2 percentage point increase. From our end, all these changes are very small and would not have any impact on a school's standing in the Best Colleges rankings. I do wonder about the reliability of a statistical analysis that says it can accurately take into account all the factors that affect year-to-year admissions and can isolate the effect of the Best Colleges rankings.
The paper's conclusion that liberal arts colleges are not benefiting from their top-tier rankings and that prospective students and their parents are more influenced by factors other than the rankings is 100 percent counter to the statements of the presidents and admission deans from some liberal arts colleges. They have criticized the U.S. News college rankings as too influential in admissions decisions. I hope they read this paper and reconsider their criticism.