Harvard study: campus scandals devastate enrollment

Contradicting the adage that “all press is good press,” a new study shows that when colleges are shrouded in public scandal they can also expect a decrease in applications.

According to a working paper out of the Harvard Business School, scandals on college campuses that receive extensive media coverage lead to decreases in the number of applications that college receives.

Long-form articles, which are longer articles that can approach the size of novels, have “the same effect as dropping ten rankings in the popular U.S. News and World Report college rankings” when they focus on instances of scandals including cheating, sexual assault, murder, or hazing, the study reports.

The study’s authors identify 124 different public scandals that occurred between 2001 and 2013 at the top 100 U.S. colleges. Scandals with more than five mentions in the The New York Times lead to a 9 percent drop in applications the following year, and scandals covered by long-form magazine articles receive 10 percent fewer applications the following year.

Although the study only examined four specific types of scandal, recent experience suggests the findings also have broader applicability to other types of negative media attention.

The University of Missouri, for instance—which became a media spectacle in the fall of 2015 as students raucously protested alleged incidents of racism on campus—recently experienced a $32 million budget shortfall and decline of 1,500 in student enrollment, both of which the administration acknowledged were directly tied to the protests.

[RELATED: Mizzou short on cash and desperate for students after semester of protests]

Moreover, in December 2015, less than 3 months after protests began at Mizzou, overall applications had decreased nearly five percent from the previous year, and graduate applications dropped 19 percent, according to The Columbia Missourian.

“Overall, our results have implications for applicants, for colleges, and for the media,” the authors of the HBS paper state, suggesting, “applicants should consider the multiple effects of a scandal. Scandals provide information about a school, but also serve as a deterrent.”

After the protesters at Mizzou ousted both the president and chancellors, donors and alumni vowed to pull financial support, sports fans have declared that they will stop attending games, and parents and prospective students said they’d no longer consider Mizzou.

[RELATED: Former Mizzou president pens scathing tell-all letter]

“Not only are they providing information to potential applicants, but our finding suggests that media is serving the purpose of holding colleges accountable by deterring future scandals.”

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