One NYT article about a campus scandal may lead to a 5% drop in applications

More coverage can double the effect

Media coverage of scandals at colleges correlates with a significant drop in applications, according to a new working paper by researchers at Harvard University Business School and the College Board.

The paper examined scandals at the top 100 universities in U.S. News & World Report's rankings from 2001 to 2013. Researchers found 124 total scandals related to hazing, cheating, sexual assault, or murder. Seventy-five percent of the schools had at least one scandal during the studied time period.

In the month after those scandals, 28 schools were covered in one to five New York Times articles and 13 were covered in more than five New York Times articles. A separate 83 scandals at the schools were covered by other news outlets, such as local broadcast stations or newspapers.

Researchers found that a scandal mentioned in one New York Times article correlated with a 5% drop in the next year's applications. A scandal mentioned in more than five New York Times articles correlated with a 9% drop. And a scandal covered in a long-form article, defined as longer than two pages in a national publication, correlated with a 10% drop in applications.

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According to a previous study, that decline in applications is equivalent to dropping 10 places in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

"Students and parents want to know the schools," says Jonathan Smith, paper co-author and a College Board policy research scientist. "The media is serving the purpose of providing that information. It's essentially holding colleges accountable."

Most media coverage, 42%, was of murders. Sexual assaults garnered the next most attention, with 30%, followed by hazing with 15%, and cheating with 13%.

For example, one college saw applications fall 14% in 2014 after coverage of a hazing scandal appeared in 2012. A student wrote an 8,000-word piece for Rolling Stone, detailing the various abuses he suffered while pledging a fraternity at the school.

"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 says. That means positive and negative news coverage can affect application figures.

Researchers also found that schools were less likely to see another campus scandal in the year directly after one, than they were five years later. It's possible this is because schools set up new procedures or policies following scandals, Smith says, noting that is just speculation (Joselow, Inside Higher Ed, 7/8).


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