U.S. News & World Report is on the verge of officially announcing a major expansion of its rankings Web site. The announcement will focus on the new "University Directory" that has been in beta. The directory has a broader focus than the rankings -- with extensive listings in distance education and adult continuing education, not just the four-year residential colleges that are the focus of the rankings.
At the end of a draft of the announcement is a brief reference to U.S. News entering a partnership with Bisk Education Inc. -- a company that provides online instruction in professional education areas for various colleges -- to manage the advertising on the new site.
What is only hinted at is that U.S. News is (through Bisk) entering the "lead generation" business, in which entities sell colleges lists of names of prospective students. While experts predicted that some colleges may well buy the new options U.S. News is offering, several also said that the move reinforced their sense that U.S. News is primarily interested in making money -- and that this could add to concerns about manipulation of rankings and the kinds of decisions colleges make to look good in the magazine.
U.S. News discussed the new business in advance of the planned launch of the program after Inside Higher Ed saw a Web page (since removed from public view) in which U.S. News described its new service for colleges.
"Drive Student Acquisition With the Power of U.S. News!" was the headline. The promotional page said that this new service was coming from "the trusted leader in unbiased college rankings" and would become "the ultimate higher education directory."
"Through this unique vantage point and the dynamic realities of digital marketing, we understand more than ever the powerful opportunity for U.S. News & World Report to help connect students and universities. We also know the importance of effective, low-cost student acquisition and retention for most academic institutions to succeed in today’s competitive climate. We look forward to addressing these needs with an innovative solution that promises to revolutionize recruitment and retention throughout higher education," said the Web site, which was intended for colleges that might purchase names, but not for general viewership.
The new site, "a concierge service education portal," will also feature "exclusive content from U.S. News & World Report," and provide leads on students. "High-quality leads will be generated through branded and targeted lead forms, incorporating advanced validation and various lead delivery capabilities."
To critics of U.S. News, the planned lead generation service is the ultimate example of the problem with the magazine's role in higher education today. Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, an organization trying to make the college admissions process less commercial than it has become, noted that there is a conflict of interest in that U.S. News sets standards for colleges (in theory based on educational measures), but under this new arrangement will be making money from helping colleges meet those standards, which some question.
For example, he noted that the rankings already reward colleges for having high ratios of rejections to acceptances, and that colleges rise based on "how many kids we can say no to." So after giving colleges an incentive to increase applications as much as possible, "they are generating a side business that helps colleges increase their selectivity so that U.S. News can make more money."
"Will it make money for them? It probably will. Will it help education? I have a hard time seeing that," said Thacker.
Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News, stressed that the expansion of the magazine's education Web site was related to serving students. "The idea is to go beyond the four-year brick-and-mortar college," he said. Many adult students are enrolling online, and the approach the magazine takes to its rankings isn't meeting their needs. U.S. News, he said, recognizes that for many potential students, the colleges that top the rankings aren't the places they are considering and the new directory will help them. (Along the same lines, but still in development, U.S. News is exploring the idea of a community college directory and rankings, but the rankings are unlikely to be similar to those of four-year institutions, he said.)
At least initially, there are no plans to rank the adult and distance programs. "We just don't think the data are available," Kelly said.
As for the lead generation business, Kelly noted that colleges already advertise through U.S. News, in the magazine and on its Web site, and that Web publications need to support their activities.
The lead generation will take place when a Web site user is looking at the details on a given college or program. There is a button that someone can click for more information. Currently, with the rankings, this takes the user to the college's home page. For colleges paying for lead generation, this will lead to a page where they will be asked questions based on what the college wants to know about them. In lead generation, such questions typically may focus on academic or personal interests, academic achievement, demographics and so forth. Then the college gets not only the information that a student is interested in the institution, but some sense of whether the student is a good candidate. That's the "validation" portion of the magazine's pitch, and is generally a hot area in lead generation, which is by no means unique to higher education.
Kelly said that colleges will be included in the new directory and in the rankings based solely on educational program criteria and not on colleges' willingness to pay for lead generation. Further, he said that buying lead generation would have no impact on the rankings.
U.S. News is not doing lead generation, Kelly said. "We're not doing that," he said. The magazine is just creating a "branded market place." Rather, Bisk Education is doing that for the magazine. Bisk and U.S. News have a financial arrangement to share revenue, and that revenue will be based in part on how many potential students click on various colleges' lead generation entryways, but Kelly declined to discuss specifics. He noted that U.S. News has similar arrangements for the sale of cars, credit cards and other goods, and that other publications have arrangements, too.
While the site will also have plenty of "traditional advertising," Kelly said it was appropriate to move into lead generation, through the Bisk partnership. "Schools that want a more in-depth association with consumers will be able to do it," he said. "That's a huge growth area across the board. This is what advertisers want.... Advertisers are demanding the ability to connect with interested consumers."
Kelly also said that there was nothing wrong with a journalistic entity pursuing this strategy. "We've always been very clear. We do serve the consumer and in the process we make money. We are a journalistic institution but we are also a business."
A spokeswoman for U.S. News said that Bisk preferred not to comment on the relationship with the magazine at this time. Bisk has built ties to provide online courses for a number of nonprofit colleges and universities, but not everyone at those institutions has applauded the concept. In 2006, a former dean of Florida Institute of Technology’s College of Business wrote an e-mail in which he said that he was terminated for insubordination after noting “serious concerns” about a university contract with Bisk to offer new online degree programs.
David A. Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he didn't realize that U.S. News was moving into the lead generation business and that he expected many in the profession would have concerns.
"A lot of people who work in college admissions and counseling are troubled by the overlap in a lot of services that colleges or vendors might use. They are concerned about the trustworthiness of the sources they are passing along to students and families," Hawkins said. "They know that students and families are in some ways drowning in information, so when you have a publication that is as well known as U.S. News and that is, as they say, committed to journalistic principles, you have to be extremely careful about how you present the information."
Hawkins added that "clearly U.S. News is sitting on top of a lot of information and they are ready to capitalize on it." But he also cautioned that while the magazine may have lots of information, the lead generation business is "a very crowded market" and "no one is suggesting that there is any absence of companies in lead generation."
The lead generation business is not only large and lucrative, but quite diverse. There are major players like the College Board, ACT and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions that sell names in bulk to colleges, and there are many smaller companies that focus on particular approaches, with new companies regularly appearing.
Craig Powell is chief executive officer of ConnectEDU, which works with high schools to send electronic transcripts to colleges and which operates a lead generation service in which students allow transcripts to be shared with colleges (minus identifying information). Colleges then send a message back to indicate interest in the student, who at that point can decide whether or not to reveal his or her identity.
Powell said he believed this method was superior to what U.S. News is setting up because he does not rely on student self-reporting (neither does, say, the College Board or ACT, which are selling names with verified scores). When prospective students are just asked questions, he said, "you get tremendous inaccuracies" as many students describe "who they would like to become, not who they are."
Powell also noted that while he is in the business of helping students and colleges find one another, he isn't providing anyone with evaluations of colleges. "It certainly raises objectivity concerns," he said of U.S. News. "Now the evaluating body is also exchanging dollars with those being evaluated. That's an interesting discussion."