U.S. News college rankings: A lower spot could cost a school millions

A drop in a college’s ranking could cost that school millions of dollars, according to a prominent higher-education expert.

Robert Kelchen, a professor who heads the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, said Tuesday that lower rankings do equate to a decline in the number of applications a school receives. In turn, schools must try to make up for that by offering accepted applicants better financial-aid packages as an inducement to attend.

Colleges that suffer a rankings hit “are having to spend more money to get the students they want,” Kelchen told MarketWatch. He noted that the additional outlay could reach into not just the millions but tens of millions of dollars.

Kelchen’s comments came after the U.S. News & World Report released its much-watched annual rankings of universities and colleges on Monday. While Princeton held on to its No. 1 ranking among universities, the big news was that fellow Ivy League university Columbia dropped from No. 2 to No. 18.

The change in Columbia’s ranking followed a scandal in which the school admitted to reporting inaccurate data for previous U.S. News annual rankings.

Kelchen isn’t the only one to have observed how rankings affects a school’s profile, applicant pool and finances. A 2014 study from the American Educational Research Association found that “making the U.S. News rankings list is associated with an increase in applications” and pointed to similar results with other rankings.

Still, Kelchen noted that schools in the top tier — say, ranked 1-20 — are not severely affected by a slight upgrade or downgrade. He also notes that such schools have hefty endowments and are not going to feel too great a pinch if they have to spend those extra millions.

The Columbia situation is different in that it’s a major downgrade. But Kelchen expects the school will be able to put the scandal behind it. “It’s a black eye they’ll have to recover from, but next year there’s no way they’ll rank 18th,” he told MarketWatch.

Columbia didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for comment.

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