College rankings do matter (just not to us)

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.

number-1On 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.

Photo: Neilson makes his own foam hand, by Carolyn Coles/Flickr

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

8 thoughts on “College rankings do matter (just not to us)”

  1. I would be curious to hear your take on the Chronicle’s article yesterday on the cost of using the US News badges in your communications.

  2. Andrew, good post. What do you think of the latest USNWR controversy over hte selling of badges for universities to use in marketing materials. Apparently (according to this Chronicle of Higher Ed article: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/The-US-News-Seal-of/26287/) you can pay up to $8200 to get the right to use an “official” USNWR badge trumpeting your ranking. Here’s my issue with this:
    1. Colleges spend a LOT of time compiling data for rankings.
    2. Publications then publish cash-cow ranking issues based on hinky methodology
    3. Publications THEN suggest to the colleges on whose backs they’ve just made lots of money that… they should spend money with them on top of the time they already invested for a badge.

    That’s chutzpah, in my opinion.

  3. Ellen, Bob – I’ve been following the discussion about U.S. News‘ decision to cash in on their rankings by selling badges. I guess they’ve got to find new revenue streams somewhere, but I agree that it’s bad form — and definitely chutzpah (and not the good kind).

  4. Let me preface this comment by saying that I agree with you and everyone else who posted about the quality of the rankings and the monetization of their promotion.

    But, at the same time, I can’t wait to see where my alma maters rank every year. You’re right than it’s a point of pride if your institution or alma mater does well. It’s easy info to share and easily understood by folks.

    I do think a benefit of all of these lists is that it helps generate a sense of rivalry between institutions that focuses more on academics than athletics. The schools that I want my alma mater to leapfrog in a rankings list aren’t necessarily the ones I want them to clobber on the athletic field.

    Of course, it helps if you’re highly ranked, too!

  5. Well said, Andrew! As a follow up to our comments, today we posted engagement data on schools that promoted their US News Rankings this week.

    http://bit.ly/cI2ukb

    In a nutshell, if any of these schools could maintain the level of engagement they received on this single post in across an entire month, they’d be in the 98th percentile in the USA.

  6. Good observations, Andrew. I think ultimately, in a crowd sourced world where I can get reviews of whatever I want view sites like Yelp and find out what my friends are doing and where they’re going…some sort of different measure will find itself hitting the fray. I think the real problem comes down to validity and respect for whatever results are achieved. And so, all of this 3rd party validation is a way for many institutions who look the same as others to stand out a bit more or get attention they’d otherwise never get from outsiders.

    I do think better leveraging of the web and generating real buzz would have longer term lasting effects for institutions beyond the one-stop shop of the ratings bonzana.

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