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Contact: Tony Pals
American Educational Research Association

Study: University rankings influence number and competitiveness of applicants

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 16, 2014 - How universities fare on reputational quality-of-life and academic rankings - such as those published by the Princeton Review or U.S. News & World Report - can have a measurable effect on the number of applications they - and their competitors - receive and on the academic competitiveness of the resulting freshman class, according to a new study.

The study, "True for Your School? How Changing Reputations Alter Demand for Selective U.S. Colleges," by Randall Reback, associate professor at Barnard College of Columbia University, and Molly Alter, a research analyst for the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University, will be published online this month in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA), a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

VIDEO: Reback discusses highlights from "True for Your School?" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xomzqftQPOc

Reback and Alter studied the importance of quality of life and academic reputations by examining the often-criticized college rankings in the Princeton Review's Best Colleges guidebooks and in U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges series, along with comprehensive college-level data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

"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. "It raises important questions about the large role these arbitrary rankings can play in the college selection process."

Impact of Quality-of-Life Rankings

The study considered eight "Top 20" lists from the Princeton Review's books. In addition to Best Overall Academic Experience for Undergraduates, they included Happy Students; Least Happy Students; Most Beautiful Campus; Unsightly, Tiny Campus; Party Schools; Stone-Cold Sober Schools; and Jock Schools.

Among the findings:

Impact of Academic Rankings

Reback and Alter also examined the impact of academic rankings - such as those published by Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report - on the number and competitiveness of applicants received by universities and by their competitors.

Among the findings:

Caveats for Consumers

Given the wide availability and influence of the rankings, Reback and Alter note that a review of college guidebook and website practices by an independent organization, in order to assess the objectivity of the content, may be in the public interest.

The Princeton Review bases its guidebooks on unscientific administrative survey data obtained from colleges as well as surveys of current students which, Reback and Alter say, are notorious among college administrators for selection bias. The Princeton Review does not publicly disclose its method of aggregating survey results, and its formal ratings, Reback and Alter find, are determined in a haphazard fashion. Reback and Alter also note that many college administrators and other critics have decried the arbitrary nature of the U.S. News rankings.


About the Authors

Randall Reback is an associate professor at Barnard College, Columbia University: rr2165@columbia.edu, (212) 854-5005.

Molly Alter is the assistant data manager and research analyst for the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

For A Copy

For a copy of the full report, contact Tony Pals (tpals@aera.net, office: (202) 238-3235, cell: (202) 288-9333) or Bridget Jameson (bjameson@aera.net, office: (202) 238-3233).

About AERA

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national professional organization devoted to the scientific study of education. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.

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