Study: A High Rank for Colleges Can Increase Applications

One new study reveals a change in a college’s rank can affect both applications and the incoming class.

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The top 25 schools in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings can see up to a 6-10 percent increase in applications, per a recent study.
The top 25 schools in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings can see up to a 6-10 percent increase in applications, per a recent study.

A new academic study found the number of applications received by a college and the academic competitiveness and geographic diversity of the ensuing incoming freshman class are directly affected by changes in the annual Best Colleges rankings published by U.S. News and World Report and the various quality-of-life reputation rankings done by the Princeton Review.

That's one of the key overall findings presented in an article in the March 2014 edition of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, called "True for Your School? How Changing Reputations Alter Demand for Selective U.S. Colleges." The study's authors Randall Reback, from Barnard College and Columbia University and Molly Alter, of New York University, examined annual rankings from the two publishers using data and rankings starting with classes that enrolled in fall 1993 through 2008. 

"There is strong evidence that changes in colleges' quality-of-life and academic reputations affect both the number of applications that colleges receive and the characteristics of their next incoming classes of students," said Reback in a release. "It raises important questions about the large role these arbitrary rankings can play in the college selection process." 

This study is in a peer-reviewed journal published by Sage Publications and the American Educational Research Association. It's the latest in a rapidly expanding body of academic literature that takes a scholarly, analytical approach to the study of academic rankings and their impact on higher education and the broader society. 

The study found, among other things, that merely being ranked one of the top 25 schools by U.S. News is associated with a 6-10 percent increase in applications, according to the release. 

The study also states that colleges see a 3.2 percent increase in applicants when they make Princeton Review's Top 20 list of best overall academic experience. 

According to the study, applications to an institution decrease by 6.3 percent after a peer institution's ranking rises to the top 11 to 25 in U.S. News and World Report. The academic competitiveness of the original institution's freshman class also declines in the wake of a peer school's ranking increasing to that level, the release states. 

The study's findings also show that being ranked by U.S. News is associated with about a 10 percent increase in the fraction of out-of-state applicants, with higher rankings bringing greater geographic diversity, the release states. 

U.S. News publishes our rankings for consumers and not for the purpose of influencing any schools' admissions outcomes or educational policies. 

This study is based on a detailed analysis of a very small number of schools that have consistently ranked very highly in our National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges rankings categories

In other words, the behavior of applicants going – or not going to – the very tiny number of schools used in the study is likely not representative of the nearly 1,400 schools that are part of U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. 

One must seriously wonder if the results as they relate to U.S. News would have been different if they weren't based on such a limited number of the schools U.S. News ranks.