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The Andrew Lohse Effect

Once again the College is the poster child for a story about scandal and the effect of calamitous events on the health of an institution. Inside Higher Ed reports:

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Scandals on college campuses — whether related to sexual assault, hazing or other crimes — have made headlines in recent years. A new working paper suggests that such scandals with extensive media coverage can hurt colleges by causing a significant drop in applications.

The paper, which was authored by two researchers at the Harvard University Business School and one researcher at the College Board, looked at scandals at the top 100 universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings from 2001 to 2013. The 124 total scandals were related to four types of incidents: sexual assault, murder, cheating and hazing. (While many would consider campus murders a tragedy, the paper includes them in the category of scandal.)

The paper found that a scandal mentioned once in The New York Times led to a 5 percent dip in applications the following year. Meanwhile, a scandal mentioned in more than five New York Times articles led to a 9 percent dip.

Most dramatically, a scandal covered in a long-form article — which the paper defined as an article longer than two pages in a publication with national circulation — led to a 10 percent drop. That’s roughly the same impact on applications as falling 10 spots in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, according to a previous study by two of the same researchers…

As an illustrative example, Smith cited 2012 coverage of hazing at Dartmouth College by Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The 8,000-word Rolling Stone piece, entitled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses,” told the story of a freshman who was abused while pledging a fraternity. The freshman wrote in an op-ed for the campus newspaper that he was forced to “swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood … among other abuses.”

In 2014, Dartmouth saw a 14 percent decline in applications, Inside Higher Ed reported at the time. Philip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth, blamed the decline on the college’s reputation for rowdiness and sexual assault.

I so enjoy reporting on great professors and positive news from the College, but until we get our house in order, the pain will continue.

Addendum: Andrew Lohse ‘12 graduated from the College a month ago.

Addendum: A thoughtful alumnus writes in with a rebuttal:

I read your blog on the “Andrew Lohse Effect” regarding the effect of scandals on college admissions, but the research does not seem to ring true as it relates to our Ivy peers. Brown has had a number of scandals over the past few years, including highly publicized accusations of rape on campus, yet Brown had a record number of applicants this past year. Same with Cornell that had a very public rape case in one of the fraternities, not to mention the recent rape trials at Stanford and Vanderbilt (all of which had record numbers of applicants and record low admit rates this past year). At Columbia, a female student carried a mattress around campus for 4 years in protest of the administration’s response (or lack thereof) to her rape accusations, yet their applications have doubled over the past decade and they are now third behind Harvard and Yale in admit rate. And Penn has had a rash of suicides over the past few years, including the heart wrenching story of Madison Holleran, a freshman athlete who jumped to her death from the top of a parking garage (see NY Times link below). Yet Penn has become overwhelmingly popular among high school students (and their parents), again with record applications this past year.

The problem at Dartmouth seems much more profound and chronic. While today’s high school students seek a more “serious” academic environment in college, Dartmouth continues to be viewed as “Animal House” by the media and applicants, an image that has saddled the College since the release of the movie in 1978. The media loves to portray Dartmouth as the “bad Ivy,” where depraved student behavior runs amok. Internet advocacy groups like UltraViolet have piled on, with pop-up ads that admonish parents not to send their daughters to Dartmouth. The questions on College Confidential are the same year after year: “Is Dartmouth a drunk party school?” The reality is that many colleges share the same issues as Dartmouth, they just don’t have the persistent spotlight of the media. And Dartmouth is an easy target because all of the negative behavior occurs right on campus, while the social scene at the more urban schools is frequently off campus—which allows those schools to avoid reporting some of those statistics.

While there has undoubtedly been some bad behavior on campus, I believe that the tarnished reputation of the College is the result of years of incessant battering by the media without an effective response by the administration. Until that stops and our image is repaired, the College will continue to lag behind the other Ivies in popularity and applicants.

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