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How important are college rankings?

How much do college rankings matter to teenagers and their parents?

A new study by researchers at Barnard College and New York University documents how the college rankings published by U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review can measurably sway where applicants apply.

When a school made the Princeton Review’s annual list of the top 20 "party" schools in the U.S., for instance, applications from out-of-state students dropped by 8 to 9 percent. By contrast, being ranked as one of the top 25 schools on U.S. News’s list was linked to a 6 to 10 percent increase in applications.

According to the Hechinger Report, which covers higher education issues, the findings are the most specific regarding college rankings since a 2011 Harvard Business School study reported that rising by just one spot in U.S. News's rankings led to a nearly 1 percent increase in applications at a school.

Some other findings from the new study:

  • When a college landed on Princeton Review's top 20 list for schools with the happiest students, the number of student applications it received increased 2.9 percent, while the academic competitiveness of its incoming class also rose.
  • Colleges' incoming freshmen classes become more competitive, as measured by higher SAT scores and high school class rank, in the years immediately after a school made the top 20 list for happiest students or most beautiful campuses.
  • Schools that made Princeton Review's list of schools with the least happy students saw applications fall by 5 percent.

While being on the party school list hurt institutions among out-of-staters, landing on the stone-cold sober school list or the jock school list didn’t have a statistically significant effect on the overall number of applicants.

The study’s authors -- Randall Reback, an associate professor at Barnard, and Molly Alter of NYU -- called the rankings “arbitrary” and questioned their reliability.

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