Elizabeth Keserauskis

Building relationships and making connections

College Rankings: Popularity Contest or External Credibility?

Last week was what many in higher education considered a stressful week. The U.S.News and World Report rankings were released to the schools on Monday (8/16), with a press embargo until 12:00 midnight Eastern time Tuesday. So most college communications teams spent the day either breathing a sigh of relief and sending the release that they achieved a good rank, or frantically scrambling to craft the message drawing attention away from the fact that they slipped in the rankings.

In addition to the usual stress, U.S. News made significant changes to the methodology and presentation of the rankings this year. Full details can be found on their blog, but in summary they:

  • changed the category names
  • listed all schools, not just the top tier
  • increased the weight of the graduation rate
  • included the opinion of high school counselors in the calculation

There has always been a question about whether rankings like these and countless others are just a popularity contest, or rather a valid external assessment of college choices for prospective students and their parents. The subjective opinions of peers, and now this year high school counselors, factor into the rankings. The chief admissions officers, provosts and presidents of all colleges and universities have the opportunity to provide their opinion of the institutions in their geographic region. This peer assessment variable accounts for 25% of the total score–the most heavily weighted variable. If we are trying to assess outcomes of an institution, why aren’t the managers at companies hiring the graduates asked?

You could argue that this skews the rankings, as surely an institution can influence those opinions through a variety of communication channels timed with the survey response due date. Or, you can view this an opportunity to educate your peers on the accomplishments and accolades your institution has recently achieved, and create a communication strategy for this target audience.

Have you ever noticed how the underdogs who make it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament manage to place high in the rankings? (Think Butler, Northern Iowa this year.) And how the tournament is right around the time that the survey is completed? Coincidence? Or is that there is increased visibility and communication about those schools while they are featured on TV?

Assessment is always a big topic at universities. To me, this is one more way to assess success. There are qualitative and quantitive, objective and subjective, ways to measure nearly everything.

Additionally, when you increase factors like graduation rate, your overall score increases. So, in theory, would your rank.

Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, there is something to be said from a marketing perspective about credibility through external validation. Several of the categories, like Up and Comers and Focus of Student Success, are great to use in a communication strategy highlighting recent innovations you have added to your institution.

There are also those schools that do not appear on the rankings who try and use that to their advantage. I have seen taglines such as “awards won’t change the world, but our graduates will” on billboards.

Has anyone asked whether prospective students and parents are using these rankings in their decision making process? If you appear favorably in the rankings, are you calling attention to it and asking your prospective students and parents to pay attention?

An article appeared in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education in 2008, titled De-Mystifying the U.S. News Rankings: How to Understand What Matters, What Doesn’t and What You can Actually Do About It. I highly recommend reading this article.

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August 22, 2010 - Posted by | higher education, marketing, public relations, reputation management | , , , ,

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