For student recruitment, rankings still matter

Here’s some disturbing news for those of us who wish college rankings would just go away:

According to recently publicized results of a poll of prospective college students, the rankings of college and university programs by media outlets like U.S. News & World Report continue to have a significant impact on the college search process.

The consulting firm Art & Science Group, conducted an online survey with 846 college-bound high school seniors in November and December 2012. Here’s what they found:

  • Two-thirds of students surveyed indicated that they had taken college rankings into account in their college application decisions.
  • Students with the highest SAT scores (1300 or higher) were more likely to have considered the rankings in their application decisions than students with SAT scores of less than 1300.
  • Nearly two-thirds of students surveyed “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that the rankings are “very important in trying to sort out the differences between colleges.”
  • About two-thirds, respectively, somewhat or strongly disagreed that the rankings “don’t matter” and that they “don’t matter to me, but they matter to my parents.”

So, yes, the rankings remain relevant. And with the proliferation of new ranking organizations out there, and the White House’s push to have a grading system for higher education, these types of numbers games will continue in a variety of forms. Just in the past year, we’ve seen the rise of many “ROI” (return on investment) rankings, like this one. Look for this trend to continue. Since U.S. News owns the reputational ranking category, other groups, from publications like Forbes and Washington Monthly to salary-information services like PayScale, will focus on ranking schools by ROI or affordability.

Beyond the rankings

But the Art & Science Group folks suggest other factors may play an even greater role in students’ decisions on picking a college. Things like “substantive and atmospheric insights and information from the campus visit, interactions with parents, information on the web and in print materials, and more personal forms of contact with prospective students … can have a greater influence than rankings.”

Furthermore, “we would argue against spending too much institutional time, money, and energy on hand wringing over rank per se and on attempts to improve it. For most institutions, it would be far better to focus on planning strategy that strengthens an institution’s competitive position on a substantive basis: differentiation based on educational approach, student experience, innovative teaching, and the like.”

In other words, your time is better spent developing and refining your institution’s brand persona and messaging, and developing ways to deliver that messaging to your prospective students.


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.

2 thoughts on “For student recruitment, rankings still matter”

  1. Would love to learn more about the demographic profile of the sample.

    Our research, qualitative and quantitative, indicates that for some individuals, rankings do influence consideration but not selection. For most people though, rankings are not a significant driver — they may have ‘stated’ importance with some, but very little ‘derived’ importance with most.

    The “Beyond the Rankings” section of your post is much more representative of the marketplace. Word-of-mouth testimonials from known and trusted current students and GOLD (graduates of the last decade) individuals. They represent authentic proof and evidence about the value and worth of the individual college experience.

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