True for Your School? How Changing Reputations Alter Demand for Selective U.S. Colleges
True for Your School? How Changing Reputations Alter Demand for Selective U.S. Colleges

Published in:
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
March 2014
vol. 36 no. 1

Randall Reback, Barnard College, Columbia University
Molly Alter, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University


There is a comprehensive literature documenting how colleges’ tuition, financial aid packages, and academic reputations influence students’ application and enrollment decisions. Far less is known about how quality-of-life reputations and peer institutions’ reputations affect these decisions. This paper investigates these issues using data from two prominent college guidebook series to measure changes in reputations. We use information published annually by the Princeton Review—the best-selling college guidebook that formally categorizes colleges based on both academic and quality-of-life indicators—and the U.S. News and World Report—the most famous rankings of U.S. undergraduate programs. Our findings suggest that changes in academic and quality-of-life reputations affect the number of applications received by a college and the academic competitiveness and geographic diversity of the ensuing incoming freshman class. Colleges receive fewer applications when peer universities earn high academic ratings. On the other hand, unfavorable quality-of-life ratings for peers are followed by decreases in the college’s own application pool and the academic competitiveness of its incoming class. This suggests that potential applicants often begin their search process by shopping for groups of colleges where non-pecuniary benefits may be relatively high.

News Coverage

Universities' National Rankings Affect Competitiveness of Application Process
Arkansas Traveler (University of Arkansas), March 12, 2014


Study: A High Rank for Colleges Can Increase Applications 
"Morse Code" Blog, U.S. News & World Report, January 23, 2014

Student happiness more influential than academic status in college rankings, study suggests
The Daily Free Press (Boston University), January 22, 2014


Research Trumps Rankings for a Wise College Choice, January 22, 2014

Happiness rankings influence choice of university
The Australian, January 20, 2014

Do college rankings really matter? Yes — in some surprising ways
Seattle Times, January 20, 2014

New Study Quantifies Impact of College Ratings
Diverse Issues in Higher Education, January 19, 2014

A Party School Ranking Could Cost a University a Drop in Enrollment
InTheCapital, January 17, 2014

College Rankings Influence Enrollment; the Real Reason University Leaders Dislike 'Party School' Label
University Herald, January 17, 2014

College Rankings Really Do Influence Which Schools Students Apply To
The Atlantic, January 17, 2014


Study Reveals The Real Reason Why Colleges Hate Party School Rankings
Huffington Post, January 16, 2014

New study quantifies impact of ratings
The Hechinger Report, January 16, 2014

Students Just Want to Be Happy
Inside Higher Ed, January 16, 2014

Your College's Reputation in Measurable Ways
The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 16, 2014

College rankings: Study finds they influence applicants
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 16, 2014

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