With the pressure to achieve enrollment goals rising every year, many higher education leaders will do whatever they can to gain a competitive edge. One area of focus for many in this quest, of course, is their institution’s place in annual college rankings. Yet the role rankings play in college admissions remains not only controversial, but perhaps, widely misunderstood.

As recently as 2014, Inside Higher Ed reported that while most institutions don’t admit to cheating in rankings reports (2% of private and 0% of public institutions), more than nine in 10 admissions directors believe that other colleges do. Additionally, only 7% believe that entities that produce rankings “have effective systems in place to prevent such fabrication.” Given the annual hysteria around college rankings there is little reason to believe this has changed over the past few years.

But, what if evidence suggests that what many think are the most important influencers of students are only marginally important?

It’s easy to say that rankings hold value in the eyes of many college constituents. For example:

  • For development offices, rankings may boost giving.
  • For faculty, rankings may influence the pride they feel in the institution they work for.
  • For presidents, rankings may be of importance to the board.
  • For international students and their families (particularly in crucial markets like China), US. News and World Report, specifically, is perceived as a governmental rating and is highly regarded.
  • For high school counselors, they may serve as a guide when advising students where to apply.

But what about domestic prospective students? In a recent survey of nearly 800 college admissions and marketing professionals, 78% believed that domestic prospective students use U.S. News and World Report rankings when researching schools. In that same survey, however, only 38% of 1,700 teen respondents said they used it.

Further, when given an extensive list of ranking programs rankings (e.g., U.S. News, Princeton Review, Niche.com, etc.), 28% of students indicated they did not use rankings at all — or at least did not use any of the ones they were asked about. This means that while eight out of 10 admissions professionals believe teens use rankings, the reality is that seven out of 10 teens do not.

While Eduventures’ data also supports these findings, it does indicate that rankings may become slightly more important during yield. Still, the 2017 Survey of Admitted Students found that 37% of prospective students both used “College guides,” such as the Princeton Review and U.S. News, and found them to be useful in their final decision. An additional 12% used them but did not find them useful, while a slight majority (51%)—even at this point in the enrollment funnel—did not use them at all (Figure 1).


High School Students Use of CollegeGuides/Rankings During YieldFigure 1

Yielding Prospective Students

When it comes time to make an enrollment decision, the data shows rankings are a far less influential information source for prospective students than, say, communications with admissions staff, your college website, or even your social media presence (Figure 2).


Top 10 Most Used and Useful On-Site Information Choices for Learning about College
The College’s overall website
The College’s Admissions website
Google searches
One-on-one sessions with admissions officers held at your high school
Communication with admissions staff
The College’s publications (viewbooks, brochures, course catalogue)
College comparison websites (CollegeBoard, CollegeNavigator, etc.)
Campus-hosted visit (tours, overnight stays, open house, class visit)
The College’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube)
10.College guides (Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report, etc.)

Figure 2


While college websites (#1 and #2 in Figure 2) and communication with admissions staff (#4 and #5) still reign supreme, the impact of newer entrants to the college marketing arena, like of #7, college comparison websites, should not be overlooked. The algorithm-based matches that help point high school students in one direction or another personalize a search experience in an instant. Even simple Google searches (#3), not available to most higher education leaders back when they applied to college, act as a powerful sorting mechanism.

This is a good thing: the information sources that students use the most are also the ones that institutions can act upon rather than those that capture information that may be outside of their control. But maybe there is bigger question we should be asking: Are we entering a post-rankings era?

It’s not hard to see how these newer search tools could be perceived as “smarter” sorting mechanisms since they draw—either directly or indirectly—on personal information about the student, while college rankings do not.

We also know that the largely Gen X parents guiding today’s teens are less attuned to prestige than their Baby Boomer counterparts who helped the Millennials go to college. Today’s parents are more focused on the right fit for their rising Gen Z children. Together, these search and cultural trends may point to less emphasis placed on rankings, at least for prospective students.

In the end, institutions still do a lot of things to try to influence or sway rankings. Some build public relations campaigns to try to influence their peers’ perspectives of their institution. Others build strategic recruitment plans to boost application rates, or worse, falsify their test score reports in hopes of influencing selectivity metrics.

Considering the relatively low influence rankings have on traditional prospective students, however, college admissions and marketing departments may be better-served to focus on the substance of their academic programs, clear outcomes statistics, and creating an environment where the best-fit prospective students have the opportunity to connect and engage with the institution. They may also want to spend some more time learning about the newer sorting mechanisms for college search.


Kim Reid, Eduventures Principal Analyst at NRCCUA, contributed to this post.

The average age of students entering graduate schools today is 33. While Generation Z is the focus of our undergraduate counterparts, Millennials are now our target for supporting graduate student enrollment for the health of our institutions and career advancement opportunities for the students we serve.

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