College Scandals Carry Long-Term Impacts, According to Harvard Study

Posted By Eliana Osborn on August 3, 2016 at 8:49 am
College Scandals Carry Long-Term Impacts, According to Harvard Study

In today’s media rich environment, bad news spreads quickly. For colleges trying to manage their image, serious consequences often accompany breaking scandals. Harvard Business School has a new working paper out that quantifies just how damaging college scandals are for recruiting efforts.

The Impact of Campus Scandals on College Applications follows dramatic coverage of higher education’s ugly moments: sexual assault, cheating, racial divisions, and athletic improprieties. The paper examines how significant media coverage reduces how many students apply across the top 100 universities. Even though schools react to scandals and are less likely to have another incident after the first blow-up, Impact also reports that such efforts have just a five-year window of reduction.

During a period ranging from 2001 to 2013, study authors found 124 public scandals involving the top 100 universities. Extensive media coverage is measured as a scandal mentioned more than five times by The New York Times. For such schools, applications for the following year declined 9%. For scandals that merit some kind of long-form journalism, the drop hit 10%.

“Generally speaking, students do not have full information on colleges, and recent research suggests that their application strategies are sub-optimal,” authors Michael Luca, Patrick Rooney, and Jonathan Smith explain. Media coverage of scandals has an outsized impact on applications compared with how relevant the issue is to actual campus conditions.

What college scandals mean to institutions

Much of a college ranking score is based on measures such as how many applications a school receives and how selective they are. This is not a fixed quantity nor one related to actual learning. A 10% drop in applications, according to Luca and his co-authors, is equal to dropping 10 places in U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Impact finds that universities are quick to take steps to remedy scandalous situations or at least to mitigate perceptions. For prospective applicants, these schools might in fact be safer during the years of their tenure. Policy or structural changes that take place as a result of media-heavy scandal coverage get far less attention than the negative incident itself. A drop in applications is a reaction to scandal news rather than the actual campus environment.

What the working paper makes clear is what a fluid world college rankings can be. Perception becomes truth as students make decisions based on all the information available to them—not just the messages schools so carefully present. Proactive communication with prospective applicants, even about shameful situations, is needed if colleges want to minimize the damage caused by public scandal.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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