Study: Rankings Affect Student Applications

A recent academic journal article says a gain of one place in the rankings can increase applications.

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A school’s numerical position in the Best Colleges rankings can affect student applications, according to a recent journal article.
A school’s numerical position in the Best Colleges rankings can affect student applications, according to a recent journal article.

A small change in a school's U.S. News Best Colleges rank can have an effect on students' application decisions – but it's how that information is presented that makes the difference.

That's one of the findings presented in an article in the spring edition of the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, "Salience in Quality Disclosure: Evidence from the U.S. News College Rankings," in which authors Michael Luca at Harvard Business School and Jonathan Smith at the College Board examine how students' application decisions are affected by both the rankings themselves and their presentation.

The authors found that an improvement of one place in the rankings leads to a 1 percent increase in the number of applications a school receives. 

This peer-reviewed article joins a rapidly expanding body of academic literature that takes a scholarly, analytical approach to the study of academic rankings and their impact. 

In a post on the Harvard website about their research, the authors write that the Best Colleges rankings "have become so influential at least in part because U.S. News makes the information so simple. While earlier college guides had already provided useful information about schools, U.S. News did the work of aggregating the information into an easy-to-use ranking, making it more salient for prospective students. However, students tend to ignore the underlying details even though these details carry more information than the overall rank." 

The rankings affect the admissions process differently if schools are ranked, rather than listed in a tier in alphabetical order, according to the article. 

The authors say in the article that their research shows "Rankings have no effect on application decisions when colleges are listed alphabetically, even when readers are provided data on college quality and the methodology used to calculate rankings." 

The authors' Web post also says that "college applicants pay attention to a school's overall rank, rather than the more informative (but more complicated) underlying information. When U.S. News and World Report chooses how much weight to apply to different categories (such as faculty/student ratio and alumni giving rate), they are exerting a large amount of influence over students' application decisions." 

Rankings may also have an impact on more than student applications. "Since rankings affect applications, colleges have an incentive to improve their rank. Moreover, improved rankings increase applications, which lowers acceptance rates and in turn, improves rankings. Rankings may therefore provide incentives for colleges to reallocate of resources," the article states.

A 1 percentage point change in applications if a school rises one place in the rankings is a very small change, relatively speaking. Other factors can also contribute to the rise and fall in applications, including success in big-time NCAA sports, financial aid and tuition policies and marketing efforts by a school to attract international full-pay students. 

U.S. News is not setting its weights to influence either schools' or students' admissions practices or decisions. We are setting weights based what matters most in determining academic quality and what students should care about when applying to colleges. 

Outcome factors that relate to graduation and retention rates, which count for 30 percent, are the most heavily weighted factors in the Best Colleges ranking. If students are choosing schools that score high on retaining and graduating their students, they will likely have a successful college experience.