Do College Rankings Still Matter?
Colorado College and RISD recently made news by pulling out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Their decisions follow those of Harvard and Yale law schools, among others, that made this same announcement last year. At a recent event, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona cautioned colleges against worshiping at “the false altar” of college rankings.
Long considered misleading and prone to manipulation, rankings are in the news again. But despite ongoing debate, few institutions are expected to follow the lead of Colorado and RISD – two schools that are unlikely to experience a hit to their reputations.
Perhaps now is a good time to revisit the hold rankings have on undergraduate recruitment. Specifically, what role do they play in school selection and to whom do they matter?
How Much do Students Care about Rankings?
Eduventures’ Student Sentiment Research™ found that just one in five college-bound high school students (19%) trusted rankings as one of the top information sources for college search. Hardly an overwhelming majority, but institutions should still take note of who these students are—especially if this student segment is key to their recruitment strategies.
Figure 1 provides a profile of the students who rely on rankings vs. those who don’t.
This profile shows that the students who trust rankings are skeptical of the information they receive directly from the schools—except, notably, videos. They prefer to do their own research and use third-party information sources, like college comparison websites. They also place less trust in the guidance of high school teachers and counselors.
Rankings-interested students are often interested in STEM programs that lead to graduate school. They may see rankings as an objective source that provides more scientific information than others. Their comparatively greater focus on academic strength and private schools suggests that they seek selectivity and strong academic reputations.
Many of them also have college-educated parents and might rely more heavily on their insights. But how much do their parents care about college rankings?
College Rankings Power Users
Perhaps not surprisingly, rankings matter much more to parents. In our Prospective Parent Research™, 98% of parents of college-bound high school students told us their college preferences are based on school reputation. And for nearly two-thirds of parents, a school’s reputation is at least partially determined by its position in the rankings (Figure 2).
To parents, rankings matter more than whether a school is respected in the community, its reputation among employers, or the starting salaries of graduates. To parents, rankings are a beacon of hard metrics in a perhaps confusing and overwhelming sea of potential options. They allow for direct comparison between schools. But they may also be one of the primary sources of information about colleges that parents are aware of.
Only about half of parents reported that a college had reached out to them with parent-specific information, although parents generally expressed a desire for this type of outreach. More than half of all parents reported they had explored a school’s website, and another 40% had examined the print materials schools sent to their households.
Overall, parents use fewer institutional information sources than students, and this may be because those are still primarily designed for students. No wonder rankings are popular among parents.
The Bottom Line
While a small number of institutions have pulled out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, many others are still trying to game the rankings ladder. Their pull is deeply engrained in consumers’ minds. But critical voices are getting louder, and perhaps it is time for institutions to consider how to strengthen their reputations outside of rankings.
Most prospective students do not care much about rankings, their parents do. A specific segment of skeptical students looking for strong academics also believes rankings provide the best guidance. How can institutions respond?
- Parents need more information tailored to them. Parent-focused information sources are less ubiquitous, so it is important for institutions to start outreach to this segment early. The website provides a good opportunity to connect, as well as email with content that speaks directly to parents and guardians. Parent-specific sub-pages and request-for-information (RFI) forms can open the gates to direct communication with parents. Statistics on graduation rates, career outcomes, and salaries of graduates can provide the information parents are looking for with strong alternatives to rankings alone.
- Students are more complicated; focus on your online presence. Students who value rankings are skeptical of the institutional narrative. They don’t rely on guidance from their high schools, suggesting that more outreach and stronger relationships with feeder schools are not the solution. These students trust their own search skills, particularly online. They also consult college planning and comparison sites. Good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices are as important to reaching these students as paying attention to your institution’s profile on college planning websites. Videos that showcase your institution’s academic rigor may also help.
Know Your Family Audience
Creating a successful outreach strategy for parents/guardians requires an understanding of their involvement in their student’s college search process.
Eduventures’ Prospective Parent Research™ provides insight into the preferences and expectations of parents/guardians of college-bound high schoolers, equipping institutions to shape their communications to best address what’s on the minds of these parents/guardians.
- Parent/Guardian mindsets: Do parents/guardians see the same pathways through college as students do?
- Parents’/Guardians’ roles in college search: How hands-off or hands-on are parents/guardians in preferences and choices about schools, careers, majors, etc.?
- College costs: Are the price sensitivities of parents/guardians and students aligned?
- Value perception of college: Do parents/guardians see value in a college education? What do they want their children to derive from their college educations?
Pandemic-Proof Your Enrollment Strategy with Admitted Student Research
This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.
By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:
- Nationwide benchmarks for yield outcomes
- Changes in the decision-making behaviors of incoming freshmen that impact recruiting
- Gaps between how your institution was perceived and your actual institution identity
- Regional and national competitive shifts in the wake of the post-COVID-19 environment
- Competitiveness of your updated financial aid model