Feb 8, 2010

Weather Affects College Choice but Not How You Think

For those of us shoveling out from under the DC Blizzard of 2010, it comes as no shock that weather could affect a prospective college student’s feelings about a particular campus. But it is a little surprising that this phenomenon has been studied and scientifically tested by a researcher at the University of California—San Diego and that the results run directly counter to common wisdom.

In a report entitled, “Weather To Go To College,” Uri Simonsohn analyzed enrollment decisions of 1,284 high school students who visited a university known “for its academic strengths and recreational weaknesses.” What he found was that current weather conditions influence future decision-making. OK, that makes sense. But based on his research, Simonsohn found a statistical link between clouds and enrollment that is a little surprising. Statistically, an increase in cloud cover on the day of a campus visit is associated with an increase in the probability of enrollment.

Wow. That’s huge! We know that campus tour guides have a big influence over enrollment decisions, but now it looks like weather has an impact as well. Strangely, cloudy weather on the day of a visit can make it more likely that the student will enroll if accepted. This has got to be great news for colleges in Seattle, Portland OR, and Binghamton NY, numbers 4, 5, and 7 on the cloudiest cities in a US ranking.

Mr. Simonsohn’s study of “projection bias” as it relates to clouds and college enrollment might leave you scratching your head. High school students are ordinarily advised not to allow weather conditions during a college visit affect their assessment of an institution’s general worthiness because we don’t want bad weather to “cloud” perspective and have an unfairly negative impact on enrollment decisions.

According to this report, overcast weather makes academic activities appear more “inviting” and this feeling carries over to future enrollment decisions at institutions where you need to work hard to succeed. Not surprisingly, clouds promote school work. Hence there is future “utility” in going to a school that experiences cloudy weather.

The study, published in the Economic Journal, takes care not to identify the institution studied except to say that a college guide characterizes students as believing campus life works like this—“sleep, friends, work, choose two.” Further investigation finds these terms used in relation to MIT. One wonders if similar results would have come out of study of students at the author’s home institution—UC San Diego. Doubtful.

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