The annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings are out, and as usual, the occasion is the cause of a lot of cognitive dissonance for many of us in the higher ed marketing and PR business.
On the one hand, we claim to loathe the rankings for all the reasons you’ve heard before: flawed methodology, inherent bias in favor of elite institutions, it’s a popularity or beauty contest, there is no emphasis on outcomes, etc.
On the other hand, we are quick to promote the good news any such third-party validation provides for our institutions. And with U.S. News‘ constant tweaking of the rankings — this year’s includes lists by academic specialties and region as well as rankings by high school guidance counselors, “Great Schools at Great Prices,” “A-plus Schools for B Students,” “Up-and-coming colleges” and so on — there’s seemingly a ranking for any institution conceivable. It’s almost to the point where one colleague’s tweet about the rankings — We’re a top 50 women’s junior engineering seminary! — is not so far-fetched and may be coming soon to a college viewbook near you.
Yes, there are a few of you out there who take the high road and don’t publicize or comment on rankings. For instance, Hamilton College’s president, Joan Hinde Stewart, is among a group of 20 presidents who have pledged “not to mention U.S. News or similar rankings in any of our new publications, since such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number.” But many of us do promote the rankings in one form or another, even if we hold our noses while doing so. Hence, cognitive dissonance.
Like many of my higher ed marketing comrades, I don’t care much for the annual U.S. News rankings. The reason? Brace yourself for some hypocrisy: It’s because we don’t look so hot.
Mind you, we’re not in the gutter. But we look a lot better in other rankings. Like PayScale’s salary rankings. We look very good in those rankings, because the average starting salaries of our graduates are pretty high. That’s an outcome, my friends, measurable and grounded in facts. Not some flimsy reputational ranking based on the views of a bunch of deans and presidents.
But I digress. The point is that while we may not think much of these rankings, some of our audiences like them. When their alma maters place high in the rankings, alumni take pride in knowing they went to a quality school. When their campuses place lower, they rally to the defense of their old school, joining in on the attack against the ranker’s flawed methodology, or they lament the decline of quality at their alma mater since the good old days.
Usually, though, if the rankings news is pretty good, audiences will take pride in it. This is a point the folks at BlueFuego make in a blog post a couple of days ago. While we PR types may not issue a press release about our rankings for news media consumption, we would be smart to inform students, alumni and other parties of the results through our own media or via social media. As BlueFuego points out, doing so may yield surprisingly positive results.
BlueFuego looked at how universities that scored high in another recent ranking (Forbes) publicized the news via Facebook pages. Using their formula to measure engagement (a combination of comments and “likes”), BlueFuego concluded that the status updates yielded better-than-average engagement on those Facebook sites.
That’s also been the case with our campus Facebook page. Even though our latest U.S. News rankings weren’t exactly stellar, and weren’t what seasoned PR flacks would consider even remotely newsworthy, our Facebook audience responded favorably to the information with 17 likes, which is pretty good for our page.
In April 2009, I posted an entry about the importance of these rankings to various audiences, especially international students. “The rankings game will continue,” I wrote, “and U.S. News and other media sources that rank institutions do so because they bring a sort of third-party validation to the process that higher ed just cannot seem to provide itself.” Third-party validation is a marketing ploy as old as PR itself, whether it comes in the form of testimonials, survey results (remember “four out of five dentists recommend…”?) or college rankings.
P.S. – While we’re on the topic of rankings, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Missouri S&T is ranked No. 1 among the nation’s top 30 Awesome College Labs, as determined by Popular Science magazine (September 2010). Third-party validation, baby! Gotta love it.