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Students at Claremont McKenna, ranked by Princeton Revivew as the happiest

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Students Just Want to Be Happy

January 16, 2014

The Obama administration wants to produce new ratings that will allow prospective college students to identify institutions with high graduation rates, solid job placement records and generous student aid. But what if students just want to be happy?

A study being released today documents the statistically significant impact of several Princeton Review rankings of colleges on quality-of-life issues. At least according to the study, applicants may be be swayed not just by academics (or the qualities the Obama administration wants to highlight) but by rankings that indicate that students are happy, and think that their campus is beautiful.

The quality-of-life ranking of the Princeton Review that receives by far the most press attention (party school), however, does not appear to have much of an impact on the applicant pool, with the exception of a decline in applications only evident among out-of-state students.

Princeton Review rankings are fairly well known in admissions circles for their limitations. The rankings are based entirely on student surveys at their own institutions. So students are reacting to how they feel about student happiness, interaction with professors and the quality of food -- without any basis for comparison to other institutions. No part of the ranking actually involves anyone comparing institutions. But the study being released today -- being published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis -- says that these rankings matter to prospective students. (The article abstract is available here.)

Among the findings:

  • When a college makes the top 20 list for "happy students," applications go up by 2.9 percent, as does the academic competitiveness of the incoming class.
  • When the college makes the top 20 list for "most beautiful campus," applications go up by 2.3 percent, as does the academic competitiveness of the incoming class.
  • Making the list of "least happy students" results in an application decline of 5 percent.
  • Making the list for "least beautiful campus," (formerly called the "unsightly, tiny campus" category) results in a 5.2 percent decrease.
  • Just as there is minimal impact from the party school designation, the study found no impact from being designated a "stone cold sober" or "jock" college. The paper suggests that there is enough self-selection in the student bodies of institutions that lead these lists that the designations don't matter. It is after all hardly a revelation to find Brigham Young University on top of the sober list.

The study -- by Randall Reback, associate professor at Barnard College, and Molly Alter, a research analyst for the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University -- also found that the impact of gains or drops on quality of life rankings may affect peer institutions, not just the colleges going up or down. With measures of academic quality, a competitor's gain is a college's loss or vice versa. So if College A and College B compete for the same students, and College B goes up in an academic ranking, College A loses applicants.

The opposite is true with quality-of-life rankings. When peers go down, the number of applications to a college goes down. And the opposite when peers go up. The paper speculates that this shows applicants are looking for groups of colleges and making judgments on the groups, not just single institutions.

Before applicant-hungry college administrators respond to this study by, say, shifting more money into campus facilities and landscaping, they should be warned that some factors that seem to land colleges on lists of those with the happiest students or most beautiful campuses aren't things a college can just buy. For example, it helps to be in California. Five of the top 20 colleges for happiest students in the most recent report are located in California. The proportion is the same for those in the top 20 for most beautiful campuses. (Only one California institution can be found on both lists.)

When it comes to beautiful campuses, it seems to help to be private (and classic collegiate architecture may help, as is evident through the appearance of institutions such as Rhodes, Wellesley, Kenyon and Mount Holyoke Colleges on the list). Only two on the list are public (University of Mississippi and Ohio University). But half of those on the "least beautiful campus" list are public -- many of them institutions that would have a much more difficult time justifying the hiring of a star architect for a new building than might a private college.

In an interview, Reback said that these results don't mean that colleges should ignore academics. He said that the study finds that the baseline level of applications is influenced by overall academic reputation. What the study finds is that, whether a college's academic reputation is strong or not, it can go up or down based on these non-academic factors.

The study shows that applicants "are discerning in which aspects they care about," he said.

 

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