Published on 2016/04/20
The EvoLLLution | Rankings: Should We Care?
Rankings can be impactful but it will be rare that an institution cannot spin rankings in their favor.

When I was asked to share my thoughts about the impact ranking systems have on student choice and institutional marketing efforts, I was thrilled. What an easy topic to tackle! I certainly have strong opinions about rankings.

As I dug into the project, however, I quickly discovered that—while I might have strong opinions—they are not always mutually compatible. I found myself typing sentences such as, “Rankings are a wonderful blessing that will be the death of me” and, “Students are well served by relying on rankings that are inherently flawed.”

I take heart in the belief that I am not alone. Rankings bring out the irrational in many of us. Questions involving concepts such as equity or goodness or accuracy tend to exacerbate our twitchiness. Fortunately, our topic today is about the ways that rankings do or should influence behavior.

There are some axioms that should guide our thinking on this topic.

The first is that rankings are important to students. When a student chooses a school, they are tying their personal brand to that of the institution. The same claim may be made of buying an automobile, choosing a laundry detergent, or donning a printed t-shirt—but these affiliations are more tenuous and may be more easily cast aside. Choosing a school is more like choosing a spouse or a career. They become a part of the fabric of who we are and how we define ourselves.

That’s where rankings come in. They are accessible and pithy, and the presence of numbers and percentages give at least the appearance of objectivity. If the rankings treat your school well, then they are treating you well. Psychologically, you are your school when it comes to rankings.

Humans love this sort of hierarchical listing. We like to know who we are and where we stand—especially when evidence suggests that we are smart and we stand ahead of others. It can be heady or heartbreaking, depending on your leanings as an optimist or pessimist. Part of the shared human experience is the desire to define ourselves, and setting modesty and mental illness aside, we seek reasons to see ourselves in a flattering light.

Like all generalizations, this one has exceptions. Location, academic programs and flexibility play major roles in the decision-making process. In addition, some prospective students seem to stumble into their future alma maters. A comprehensive weighing of factors does not always accompany the choice of a school—any more than such a weighing always precedes the selection of a spouse.

Suffice it to say that rankings may influence your students, and a positive showing in the rankings will not hurt your enrollment.

If we accept this first axiom, the second should follow easily:

Institutions that are not marketing with their rankings in mind are missing the boat. This statement may be read two ways. Both are deliberate, and one is decidedly provocative.

Starting with the easier reading, marketing is all about touting your most relevant and appealing differentiators. Here we have a tool that may point to some of those features that speak to the market. Your prospective students want to know how you compare to other schools and it’s important not to be bashful about presenting this information.

“What do we do,” you might ask, “if we are not well ranked?” I will leave it to your marketing experts to advise you on the specifics, but it is hard to imagine a ranking so poor that it cannot be spun into a blurb of value without crossing an ethical line. For example, you may be ranked 247 nationally, but hold the third highest ranking in your state.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that there is no good news to be found in your rankings. No amount of spin can provide you the message you need. Or perhaps you are unranked. What then?

Now we arrive at the more controversial prong of the fork: You should leverage your marketing and other resources to achieve a better rank.

Many ranking systems include evaluations and reputation scores from other institutions. If you are school X, your ranking may be based in part on what administrators at schools Y and Z think about you. To the extent possible, you should try to influence the opinions of these voters. Ads crafted and placed for this purpose can be money well spent.

In recent months, I received two mailings from other institutions. These are not schools that I attended. In fact, my connections to them are shaky at best. I did not know much about them, and I had no strong opinions of them. Yet they mailed me elegant and expensive materials announcing the addition of new senior administrators on their teams. Those two schools are now top-of-mind for me. If you ask me my opinion of those universities, I will tell you reflexively that they are making changes and doing great things. Their investment worked on me.

It is difficult to talk about manipulating rankings without talking about ethics. I’m sure we can all sense some moral boundaries within reach. Notifying colleagues at other institutions about the new provost: okay. Offering a steak dinner in exchange for a positive assessment: not okay. It may seem that playing to the rankings at all is subversive to the objective, analytical purpose of the ranking systems.

Rather than attempting to answer these concerns, I invite you to wrestle with them. Don’t let this struggle undermine our two axioms—namely, that some students are influenced by rankings, and that we should use our marketing dollars to capitalize on this knowledge—but consider your institutional stance on rankings.

Thus, we end where we began: Struggling with a topic that seems simple.

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