Salience in Quality Disclosure: Evidence from the U.S. News College Rankings
Executive Summary — Why are the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings so influential? According to this paper by Michael Luca and Jonathan Smith, it's at least in part because U.S. News makes the information so simple. While earlier college guides had already provided useful information about schools, U.S. News did the work of aggregating the information into an easy-to-use ranking, making it more salient for prospective students. The authors show that these rankings matter in a big way: a one-rank improvement leads to a 0.9 percent increase in applicants. However, students tend to ignore the underlying details even though these details carry more information than the overall rank. Key concepts include:
- College applicants pay attention to a school's overall rank, rather than the more informative (but more complicated) underlying information.
- When U.S. News and World Report chooses how much weight to apply to different categories (such as faculty/student ratio and alumni giving rate), they are exerting a large amount of influence over students' application decisions. U.S. News presents many of these details, but it's the bottom line (i.e., the weights chosen by U.S. News) that matters.
- When deciding how to present information, managers should keep in mind that simple metrics are most effective. Providing detailed information to consumers may seem useful, but aggregate statistics (such as a ranking or grade) tend to have a larger impact on decision making.
How do rankings affect demand? This paper investigates the impact of college rankings, and the visibility of those rankings, on students' application decisions. Using natural experiments from U.S. News and World Report College Rankings, we present two main findings. First, we identify a causal impact of rankings on application decisions. When explicit rankings of colleges are published in U.S. News, a one-rank improvement leads to a 1-percentage-point increase in the number of applications to that college. Second, we show that the response to the information represented in rankings depends on the way in which that information is presented. Rankings have no effect on application decisions when colleges are listed alphabetically, even when readers are provided data on college quality and the methodology used to calculate rankings. This finding provides evidence that the salience of information is a central determinant of a firm's demand function, even for purchases as large as college attendance.