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Harvard has calculated the high price colleges pay for enduring a public scandal

Reuters/Noah Berger
Making a stir.
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Universities attract new applicants based on their reputations. What happens when those reputations take a beating?

A new working paper out of Harvard Business School looked at 124 different public scandals (defined as negative campus incidents that receive breaking news coverage, like murder or sexual assault) at the US’s top 100 colleges between the years 2001 and 2013. It found that scandals receiving extensive media attention led to a drop of as much as 10% in a school’s applications the following year. 

“To put this in context, a long-form article decreases a college’s number of applications roughly as much as falling 10 places in the US News and World Report college rankings,” co-authors Michael Luca, Patrick Rooney, and Jonathan Smith wrote.

Such a sizable hit, especially for smaller institutions, can wreak chaos on a college’s desirability and standing amongst peers. Rolling Stone magazine’s 2012 publication of “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses” led to Dartmouth being the only Ivy League university to report a decline in applications the next year. (The magazine’s inaccurate, now-retracted 2014 story about rape at the University of Virginia also put a damper on applications—and drew several defamation lawsuits from the school.)

There’s one upside to being rocked by scandal, the paper found. Whatever the event is, it usually has a major deterrent effect on future scandals at that school—though that effect does fade with every passing year.

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