Where 'U.S. News' Rankings Have Influence on Potential Applicants

Making the top 50 has an impact on applications, study finds, even if there is no quantifiable difference in quality between those just over and under that threshold. And that impact may hurt some students.


August 28, 2017

In the most recent rankings of national universities by U.S. News & World Report, there is a four-way tie for 50th: Pennsylvania State University, Pepperdine University, the University of Florida and Villanova University share the spot.

A new study says that they are fortunate to be at 50 and not 51, which is apparently more significant than the divide between, say 41 and 42 on the list.

"Perceptions of Institutional Quality: Evidence of Limited Attention to Higher Education Rankings" (abstract available here), just published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, looks at the impact on applications at various levels in the magazine's rankings.

Many critics of U.S. News and rankings generally have said that it is silly to assume that there is great impact of being 37 instead of 38. And, largely, the new study backs that up. But the major exception comes to being in the top 50. The paper looks at colleges just above and below various thresholds in the national universities and national liberal arts categories of the rankings. At 50, it matters.

For both categories examined, from 2004 through 2013, the study found drops in applications of between 2 to 6 percent for those just below 50, compared to those just at or above 50. The reason this is significant is that -- using U.S. News data that claims to measure academic quality as opposed to other factors - there is no difference in academic quality between those just above or below 50 in the rankings.

The authors are three economists: Andrew G. Meyer and Andrew R. Hanson of Marquette University, and Daniel C. Hickman of the University of Idaho.

They offer several theories that may explain the significance of landing in the top 50. They note that the print edition of U.S. News features the top 50 in various categories, and that there is a distinction online as well. But they also suggest that -- however much students may look at rankings -- they may have "limited attention" and thus don't think too deeply beyond caring about the top 50.

And this may mean that students are missing the chance to apply to (and perhaps enroll at) the institution that may be the best fit, the authors argue. In the national universities category, the institutions (during the years studied) in the 41-50 ranks received an average of 27,023 applications per year. Those just below (51-60) received about 800 fewer applications.

Of those "missing" 800 applicants, based on available data, more than half (416) would have been admitted.

For some of those students, the colleges ranked 51-60 may have been the better choice, the study suggests.


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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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