Should I Stay or Should I Go?: The Future of U.S. News College Rankings

The U.S. News and World Report Rankings have, per current vernacular, lived rent free in the minds of college and university leaders since 1983. Better than rent free, actually, since the rankings keep US News in profitable territory and higher education’s continued participation despite widely expressed disdain has tended to increase the visibility of the rankings through news coverage of this tension.  

At the Board level, the question has always been very practical. Do the rankings make a difference in the behavior of the market? 

In decades of focus group and survey research on which I collaborated with SRP, a Minneapolis-based marketing research firm, we never found that families used the US News rankings for much other than validating a choice-set. And it was never the sole or determinative source of consideration or validation. 

Nevertheless, many institutions—mainly driven by Board interest—have managed to the metrics US News used to compile the rankings. In my experience, Boards understood the shortcomings of the rankings, but found the metrics to be useful in the absence of other, equally reliable or consistent ways to compare and compete with a way to measure improvement.  

If the departures are confined to the most elite colleges and universities, I don’t believe this will result in any material change in the way the market sees the rankings, nor in how governing boards regard their utility. The market knows the elite schools are elite. That’s no mystery. And because of their visibility and their resources, these schools are in an outer orbit, while the higher education enterprise most Americans encounter involves a lot more gravity.  

I do think, and have always thought, that if colleges put the energy they burn on US News into institutional improvement, that would be good for students. 

And, I’ll proffer further, that MARKETview provides a far more robust data set and competitive vision with which to drive enrollment success. We see this lift every day.