Your College's Reputation Matters in Measurable Ways

January 16, 2014

A college's reputation shapes its short-term enrollment fortunes in measurable ways, according to a new study.

Where a selective college stands in annual rankings compiled by Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report affects the number of applications it receives as well as the competitiveness and geographic diversity of its freshman class. That's one finding in a report published this month in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Shifts in the ratings of a given college's academic strength and students' quality of life predict significant changes in demand, the researchers conclude. Their findings also suggest that changes in a college's ratings can either help or hinder its competitors' efforts to recruit and enroll students.

Randall Reback, an associate professor of economics at Barnard College, and Molly Alter, a research analyst for the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University, examined the qualitative data in Princeton Review's annual college guides, which include top-20 lists based on students' evaluations of various aspects of their colleges ("Happy Students," "Most Beautiful Campus"). They also looked at the U.S. News rankings and the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

In short, commercial measures of colleges' quality and desirability influence enrollment metrics, even when controlling for other variables—such as costs—that might explain students' choices.

"Our goal is not to isolate the causal impact of ratings per se," the researchers write, "but rather to provide evidence on which dimensions of reputation matter" to students when deciding where to apply and, later, to enroll.

Wanting Competitors to Do Well

A college receives more applications, the study found, after landing on Princeton Review's lists of colleges with the best overall academic experience, happiest students, and most beautiful campuses. Yet it receives fewer applications after appearing in a list of ugliest campuses or when described in the guide as having "unhappy students."

Changes in ratings of a competitor's reputation can affect a college in different ways. An institution sees more applications after a rival college receives lower marks for academic quality, according to the study. But an institution sees fewer applications and less-competitive applicants after peer colleges receive unfavorable quality-of-life ratings.

That finding suggests that applicants often begin their searches by looking at groups of colleges that rate highly in specific categories.

"Your competitors matter, but when it comes to your quality-of-life reputation, they're not your competitors," Mr. Reback said in an interview. "You actually want them to do well." Colleges might consider collaborating with similar institutions by encouraging prospective applicants to view them as a group, he suggested. Quality-of-life ratings might sway students as they begin to narrow down their list of colleges, the study found.

As for the power of academic ratings, the researchers said that being listed among the top 25 colleges on a U.S. News list is associated with a 6-to-10-percent increase in applications. Whether a college is ranked 10th or 20th doesn't seem to matter; merely appearing on the list explains the increase, the study suggests.

'Unscientific' and Idiosyncratic

Colleges also saw a slight increase in applications after making the Princeton Review list for best academic experience. "Front-of-book advertising may be important in the initial phases of the college-search process," the report says.

Mr. Reback and Ms. Alter also assessed the reliability of the ratings described in their study. They called Princeton Review's methods, for instance, "unscientific" and idiosyncratic. The content of top-20 lists, they write, does not necessarily reflect the descriptions of colleges in the guide. In one edition, they discovered, a quarter of the colleges with the highest academic ratings did not make the top-20 lists. Many of the discrepancies, they write, "appear to be due to arbitrary choices by the publisher."

Given the sway college guides have among some students, the authors suggest that a review of ratings systems by an independent organization might serve the public interest. "Reputations matter," Mr. Reback said. "Whether rankings accurately measure reputation is another question."