Fallout From Bad Headlines

A new working paper finds that incidents of murder, sexual assault, hazing and cheating can deter students from applying.

July 8, 2016

Scandals on college campuses -- whether related to sexual assault, hazing or other crimes -- have made headlines in recent years. A new working paper suggests that such scandals with extensive media coverage can hurt colleges by causing a significant drop in applications.

The paper, which was authored by two researchers at the Harvard University Business School and one researcher at the College Board, looked at scandals at the top 100 universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings from 2001 to 2013. The 124 total scandals were related to four types of incidents: sexual assault, murder, cheating and hazing. (While many would consider campus murders a tragedy, the paper includes them in the category of scandal.)

The paper found that a scandal mentioned once in The New York Times led to a 5 percent dip in applications the following year. Meanwhile, a scandal mentioned in more than five New York Times articles led to a 9 percent dip.

Most dramatically, a scandal covered in a long-form article -- which the paper defined as an article longer than two pages in a publication with national circulation -- led to a 10 percent drop. That’s roughly the same impact on applications as falling 10 spots in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, according to a previous study by two of the same researchers.

“When a university or college has a scandal on its campus, then in the next year, they’re going to receive fewer applications than we would expect as a direct result,” said Jonathan Smith, a co-author of the paper and a policy research scientist at the College Board.

“Students make decisions on where to apply and enroll based on small pieces of information that are easy to obtain and right in front of them,” Smith said. These pieces of information might include an article about a scandal, a rise in a college ranking or a victory by a sports team, he said.

Three-quarters of the institutions witnessed at least one scandal during the time period studied, according to the paper. None experienced more than four.

Murders accounted for 42 percent of the scandals, followed by sexual assaults at 30 percent, hazing at 15 percent and cheating at 13 percent. But the paper notes that there were not necessarily more murders on campuses than other types of scandals -- there were just more murders covered by the media.

Out of the 124 scandals in total, 28 were covered in one to five New York Times articles in the following month, and 13 were covered in more than five New York Times articles. The 83 other scandals were covered by smaller news outlets, such as local newspapers or broadcast channels.

As an illustrative example, Smith cited 2012 coverage of hazing at Dartmouth College by Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The 8,000-word Rolling Stone piece, entitled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses,” told the story of a freshman who was abused while pledging a fraternity. The freshman wrote in an op-ed for the campus newspaper that he was forced to “swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood … among other abuses.”

In 2014, Dartmouth saw a 14 percent decline in applications, Inside Higher Ed reported at the time. Philip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth, blamed the decline on the college’s reputation for rowdiness and sexual assault.

The paper also found that a college is less likely to have another scandal the year after a scandal, as opposed to five years afterward. This may be because colleges respond to scandals by implementing new policies or procedures in the following year -- although no data support this speculation, Smith said.

The paper ultimately demonstrates that the media can act as an “accountability measure,” Smith said. “Students and parents want to know the schools,” he said. “The media is serving the purpose of providing that information. It’s essentially holding colleges accountable.”

But a shortcoming of the paper is that it didn’t include scandals that weren’t picked up by the media, Smith said. “There are probably other sorts of scandals that garnered media attention, and we don’t know what those are,” he said.

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