Do the US News college rankings really mean anything?

Kind of. Moving up the chart does increase applications.

What’s more interesting is that the effect of the rankings is completely dependent on how the information is presented — if colleges are listed alphabetically, rather than by order of quality, the rank doesn’t effect application decisions at all:

How do rankings affect demand? This paper investigates the impact of college rankings, and the visibility of those rankings, on students’ application decisions. Using natural experiments from U.S. News and World Report College Rankings, we present two main findings. First, we identify a causal impact of rankings on application decisions. When explicit rankings of colleges are published in U.S. News, a one-rank improvement leads to a 1-percentage-point increase in the number of applications to that college. Second, we show that the response to the information represented in rankings depends on the way in which that information is presented. Rankings have no effect on application decisions when colleges are listed alphabetically, even when readers are provided data on college quality and the methodology used to calculate rankings. This finding provides evidence that the salience of information is a central determinant of a firm’s demand function, even for purchases as large as college attendance.

Source: “Salience in Quality Disclosure: Evidence from the U.S. News College Rankings” (September 13, 2011). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 12-014.

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