Reputation Beyond Rankings

How to respond to requests to move your institution up.

October 30, 2017

Rankings put daylight between competitors, and it definitely feels good to be in the top set. Until you’re not. Especially for institutions that make rankings an all-guiding, all-consuming pursuit, a bump down can feel devastating—but it shouldn’t. Yes: competition is healthy. Rankings-obsession isn’t. The ultimate value of the rankings is in flux today, and there’s good indication their returns are diminishing. One college president told us that 10 years ago you could walk out to the visitor parking lot while prospective students and their families were on the campus tour and you’d find a copy of U.S. News & World Report on every front seat. Today, he says, you won’t find any at all.

Why? For starters, there isn’t a direct way to measure the quality of an institution for each individual: how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge each student. And this is a generation that demands individuality. Students are investing in the experience, the culture, and the long-term value of their degree. Rankings don’t tell the comprehensive story, at least as it relates to the prospective student.

So how should higher ed marketers respond to the-still-frequent request from senior administration to create a campaign that moves them up in the rankings?

  1. Make sure they understand how rankings work. If an increased rank truly is the goal, then create a sub-campaign that can move the needle on alumni engagement or reputation among peers—the thinking that directly and most quickly affects ranking. And know that those sub-campaigns are likely pulling resources away from other important campaigns, like admissions.
  2. Make sure the foundation is solid. Your internal audiences have to be aligned. Whether that’s through brand training, or talking points crafted by your communications team when a campus-wide or public relations issue arises, taking the time to build a unified message is critical.

    The University of Missouri was a highly-ranked school on the rise, until it suffered a 35 percent drop in freshman enrollment. The cause: weeks of escalating protests surrounding complaints of racial injustice. Meanwhile, Alcorn State University saw a 38 percent rise in enrollment following on improved recruitment and retention strategies. The point: internal initiatives (or missteps) can have a far greater material effect on institutional success than an outward focus on rankings. 
  3. Don’t trade ranking for diversity. Rankings as they exist today encourage schools to target wealthier students, overstating the value of test scores and GPAs, which correlate strongly with family income. There are strong and notable exceptions to this. Highly-ranked Amherst College’s need-blind admissions process contributes to the school’s extraordinary diversity—but peers Princeton and Yale admit more students from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent combined, meaning lower access to highly ranked schools for minorities and the disadvantaged. Amherst proves it best: rankings are eclipsed when your focus is reputation.
  4. Focus on fit. Alumni rarely look back to reflect fondly on their alma mater’s ranking. More and more, prospective students are looking past rankings for clues to the school’s culture, courses and majors, and the ultimate question: Is this school a good fit for me? There are myriad resources to answer those questions, and don’t think the students aren’t seeking them out. In the end, ranking becomes an afterthought, and even a great ranking may be irrelevant to students.

Now more than ever, it’s important to think about the outcome you want in the long-term. In five to 10 years, will it matter where you’re ranked, or will it matter more that you’ve put time, energy, and resources into building a strong communications platform that elevates your reputation for years to come? 

Kelly Ruoff is Chief Creative Officer and Dakota Story is a writer at Ologie.

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