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Beyond the News

The scandal side effect in higher ed

Bad publicity can drive applicants away
University Business, August 2016

Remember the “Flutie Effect”? That’s the claim that Boston College applications increased as a result of Doug Flutie’s last-second Hail Mary pass that won a football game against the defending champs from the University of Miami.

Now we may be seeing the opposite—let’s call it the Scandal Side Effect—where a school’s bad publicity can drive applicants away.

“The Impact of Campus Scandals on College Applications,” a working paper from the Harvard Business School and the College Board, shows evidence that scandals covered heavily by the media significantly reduce applications.

The researchers reviewed a data set of scandals, ranging from cheating to hazing to rape, at the top 100 U.S. universities between 2001 and 2013.

Scandals with more than five mentions in The New York Times resulted in a 9 percent applicant drop the following year. Scandals covered by long-form magazine articles led to 10 percent fewer applications the following year.

“To put this into context,” the authors write, “a long-form article decreases a college’s number of applications roughly as much as falling 10 places in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings.”

Ironically, the study also indicates that schools tend to avoid repeat scandals, and measures put in place after an event often make the school safer. “Applicants should also understand that schools will receive fewer applications in the wake of a scandal, potentially making it easier to get in,” the study says.

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