When a scandal lands a college at the center of media attention, students and families are often repulsed – quite literally.
That’s what we discovered when we examined admissions data at dozens of schools where scandals took place over roughly a decade.
For instance, we found that in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, applications dropped by 10%, or about 5,000 applicants, from 47,552 to 42,570.
At Dartmouth, applications fell by 3% in 2013 and 14% in 2014 after Rolling Stone published an exposé about the school’s fraternity hazing culture.
And back in 2006, Duke saw its applications drop by 2% after the Lacrosse rape case.
The dips in applications tend to last about a year or two and then things go back to normal.
We are both economists with an interest in how students choose colleges and the consequences of those decisions.
While we found that applications temporarily drop at colleges that draw negative publicity, there may be some good reasons to apply to a school where a scandal recently took place.
The silver lining
First, our research found that around 75% of the U.S. News and World Report Top 100 Universities had a scandal reported by the media from 2001-2013. Simply put, scandals are common across selective college campuses. This suggest that having a scandal doesn’t imply that a school is worse than another school without a scandal - or that a school without a scandal won’t have a scandal in the future.
Second, we found that schools that have a scandal are less likely to have one in the following years than schools that didn’t have a scandal. We don’t believe our findings can be fully explained by the old saying that “lightning never strikes twice.” Rather, we think it is because colleges’ responses in the wake of a scandal – from shutting down fraternities after hazings to boosting campus police to changing administrators – make them less prone to a scandal (and hopefully safer).
Third, we find that fewer students apply to a school after a scandal, likely since scandals temporarily cause a hit to the college’s reputation. The decreased application volume may make it slightly easier to get into the school.
The aftermath of a scandal
To conduct our study, we searched for highly visible scandals in national newspapers such as The New York Times and magazines that publish long-form articles such as Rolling Stone. Just to be sure we caught the big scandals, we used a commercially available news archives site and found the same results. We placed scandals in four categories: sexual assaults, homicides, hazings and academic cheating scandals.
Examining the top 100 schools in the U.S. News and World Report National University Rankings from 2001-2013, we found that roughly 75% of schools in our dataset experienced a scandal that attracted media coverage. The scandals that became highly publicized witnessed a roughly 10% average decrease in the following year’s entering freshman applications.
We didn’t find that scandals had any impact on incoming students’ SAT scores or school yield – that is, the number of admitted students who actually go to the school. We also didn’t find any impact on alumni donations.
It’s worth noting that not all college scandals are the same. While we didn’t find any differences by scandal category, a recent study has shown that Title IX investigations at less selective schools lead to an increase in applications, likely due to the adage “all press is good press” for these less prominent schools. This nuance is important for predicting the impacts of scandals, like the ongoing bribery scandal uncovered by the Department of Justice’s Operation Varsity Blues. Applications to schools with scandals could rise or fall based on the school’s selectivity and how much attention the scandal gets in the media.
So why do students and families tend to avoid highly selective schools that have recently experienced scandals?
These scandals might provoke emotional reactions that overtake other factors that students and families consider.
Research has shown that applicants tend to rely on simple metrics and pathways in their decision-making processes. In the absence of such an event, applicants might be more likely to accurately weigh the many pieces of information, such as a school’s academic strength or extracurricular offerings, in the complex calculus of choosing a college.