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.