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Why you should look at rankings beyond top 50

It pays to look into the distance, study finds. Source: Shutterstock.

The common perception is that the higher a university is ranked, the more applications it would get from interested students. And the lower it is ranked, the less applications.

But a new study is proving otherwise: Universities only see a great impact to the number of applications if they are in the top 50. The gap between No 50 and 51 holds greater significance than the gap between No 41 and 42 on the list, according to “Perceptions of Institutional Quality: Evidence of Limited Attention to Higher Education Rankings” published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Researchers studied the impact of applications at various levels in the US News and World Report rankings of America’s Best Colleges.

“We estimate that applications discontinuously drop by two percent to six percent when the rank moves from inside the top 50 to outside the top 50 whereas there is no evidence of a corresponding discontinuous drop in in institutional quality,” the study’s abstract states.

Deciding which university to go to should not be restricted to reading only the first page of rankings. Source: Shutterstock.

Inside Higher Ed notes the magazine’s rankings have been generally been criticised for portraying there is a great impact at being 37 instead of 38 on the list. The study found it doesn’t. The only major impact on applications is seen when universities are in the top 50 or not.

The study’s authors suggests this could be because students have a “limited attention” (the top 50 ranking corresponds to the first page cutoff of the printed US News guide) thus restricting their interest to only applying to the top 50, making them miss out on other institutions that may be the best fit for them.

“The choice of college is typically a one-time decision with potentially large repercussions, so students’ limited attention to rankings likely represents an irrational bias that negatively affects welfare,” the study’s abstract read.

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