You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Sep 8, 2009 : 11:22 a.m.

U.S. News & World Report rankings boost college applications, study says

By Juliana Keeping

You can love or hate them - or ignore them altogether - but U.S. News & World Report rankings are influencing college applicants.

Essentially, when a school is listed or moves up in the top 50 - the "front page" of U.S. News -  more students are likely to apply the next year and the quality of the applicant pool goes up, according to a study co-authored by University of Michigan and Notre Dame professors. That means institutions can be more selective, the authors said.

But, the study concludes with a warning.

It "suggests that institutions can effectively woo more highly qualified students by using status signals that are unrelated to substantive changes in institutional quality."


Co-author Michael Bastedo, a U-M associate professor of education, was more blunt when he chatted with Ann last week. Those status symbols, like SAT scores, "aren't an indication of what you learn. They're an indication of how well students did in high school. It doesn't really rate the college as much as it does the admissions profile."

U-M doesn't comment on rankings, but Bastedo had plenty to say about the list's impact.

Bastedo, who works in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, co-authored "Getting on the Front Page: Organizational Reputation, Status Signals and the Impact of U.S. News & World Report on Student Decisions" with Nicholas Bowman of Notre Dame's Center for Social Concerns. Their findings were published in a recent issue of the Research in Higher Education journal.

The authors studied the top 50 institutions listed in the U.S. News rankings between 1997 and 2004 to examine the short-term impact of rankings on the academic years 1998 to 2005. The top 50 national universities and top 50 liberal arts colleges were examined separately, using several sources to measure the impact of moving on or off the top 50, or moving up or down on the front page lists. 

Admissions indicators studied included the 25th percentile of SAT/ACT scores for incoming freshmen; the percentage of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class; the percentage of applicants who were accepted; the number of applications received; and the percentage admitted students enrolled.

Overall, the impact on admissions indicators for top liberal arts colleges was less pronounced, while international universities were more sensitive to changes in rankings, especially among the top 25.

The study also examined the impact of tuition costs and instructional expenditures on admissions indicators, finding that only liberal arts colleges showed sensitivity to their institution's investment in instruction. Bastedo said that indicates the institutional quality. 

And while one might think tuition hikes would deter future students from applying, the exact opposite was true.

In his blog, Morse Code: Inside College Rankings, U.S. News director of data research Bob Morse uses the study as an indicator of the importance of rankings and an anecdote to some criticism that rankings have received from liberal arts colleges.

The New York Times Economix blog also picked up on the study.

Overall, Bastedo said, the top-50 lists were surprisingly consistent; only 112 different institutions - 56 for national institutions, 56 for liberal arts colleges - appeared on the front page during the years studied.

Bastedo said last week that some of what he found surprised and even disturbed him.

Q: What surprised you the most about your findings?

MB: It actually wasn't the main findings. We have hypothesized from the beginning that there would be a front page effect, but the other findings about tuition were a bit of a surprise. The higher tuition, the better the admissions profiles were the following year. That is somewhat contrary to economic theory. Economically, people should want to go to a school for a lower price that provides better value, to maximize the utility. We found the exact opposite. You raise your tuition and more people are likely to apply.

We were both very surprised the proportion of students of color turned out to be a negative predictor as did the proportion of female students. It suggests higher performing students are less likely to apply to schools with more diverse populations (depending on which indicator you look at). It negatively impacts all the indicators at very high levels when you just look at color. We were surprised by the finding and disturbed by it, and we had a hard time interpreting it. We had a hard time believing that students really looked at the demographic profile of a school and would be less likely to apply, and yet the data is really consistent. We made a note to ourselves to try and investigate this further.

Q: Why do you think the rankings had a larger impact on national universities than liberal arts colleges?

MB: My theory is that people who apply to liberal arts colleges are in general more knowledgeable about higher educations than those who apply to regular universities. Liberal arts colleges attract a self-selecting student population. The parents of these students are likely to be knowledgeable and have a certain ideology, that you're looking for a fit between you and the school. That would make you less sensitive to the individual changes in rankings. It's just a theory. I can't tell you exactly why. I went to a liberal arts college, for better or worse, I'm drawing on my own knowledge.

Q: Should students take in the U.S. News rankings with a grain of salt?

MB: Yes. Rankings are an indicator of status. Of prestige. If you're trying to figure out whether or not the university has more or less prestige, rankings are pretty good for that. They give you some information about the people who go to the school, like SAT scores. If you are using rankings to just apply to a school, that's a bad way to use the rankings. They're not providing you with enough information. They should be one of the things you think about.

For more information on U.S. News & World Report's take on its rankings, visit the magazine's college rankings blog.

Juliana Keeping covers the University of Michigan for Reach her at 734-623-2528 or

  • Lists don't matter.
  • I'd bet my top-ranked degree on it.
  • No way.
  • Who cares?