When a scandal lands a college at the center of media attention, students and families are often repulsed – quite literally.
That’s what we discovered when we examined admissions data at dozens of schools where scandals took place over roughly a decade.
For instance, we found that in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, applications dropped by 10%, or about 5,000 applicants, from 47,552 to 42,570.
At Dartmouth, applications fell by 3% in 2013 and 14% in 2014 after Rolling Stone published an exposé about the school’s fraternity hazing culture.
And back in 2006, Duke saw its applications drop by 2% after the Lacrosse rape case.
The dips in applications tend to last about a year or two and then things go back to normal.
We are both economists with an interest in how students choose colleges and the consequences of those decisions.
While we found that applications temporarily drop at colleges that draw negative publicity, there may be some good reasons to apply to a school where a scandal recently took place.
The silver lining
First, our research found that around 75% of the U.S. News and World Report Top 100 Universities had a scandal reported by the media from 2001-2013. Simply put, scandals are common across selective college campuses. This suggest that having a scandal doesn’t imply that a school is worse than another school without a scandal – or that a school without a scandal won’t have a scandal in the future.
Second, we found that schools that have a scandal are less likely to have one in the following years than schools that didn’t have a scandal. We don’t believe our findings can be fully explained by the old saying that “lightning never strikes twice.” Rather, we think it is because colleges’ responses in the wake of a scandal – from shutting down fraternities after hazings to boosting campus police to changing administrators – make them less prone to a scandal (and hopefully safer).