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When I worked for Boston Children’s Hospital more than a decade ago, the institution was perennially ranked the No. 1 pediatric hospital in the country by U.S. News & World Report. The expectation of a No. 1 ranking was so high that every year we planned a large celebration to tout the ranking. Think clowns, huge cakes, celebrity guests, media coverage.

So imagine the reaction when, after nearly 15 years on top, Children’s slipped to No. 2 on the list, ceding the top spot to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Emergency meetings were called to discuss the plan, since the party was focused on celebrating a No. 1 ranking, not a No. 2 ranking. Hands were wrung. Garments were rent.

In the end we settled on a new slogan for the day: “Boston Children’s Hospital: Ranked Among the Top 2 Pediatric Hospitals in the Country by U.S. News & World Report.”

“Among the top two.” I’m a little embarrassed to write it today, but at the time it seemed like the right choice.

I was reminded of this when my wife forwarded me an email from Vanderbilt, her alma mater, yesterday morning. This year’s U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities came out two days ago, and changes in methodology led to quite a shuffle in the rankings, including a five-spot drop for Vandy.

In a sign of the “psychic holdU.S. News has on higher ed and further proof that rankings systems are officially the tail wagging the dog (I know, this isn’t news), Vanderbilt, an amazing institution in a thriving city that anyone would be proud to call their alma mater, sent an 870-word (!) email to its 150,000 alumni explaining the drop.

It starts with a line meant to calm the assumedly significant concerns alumni might have: “Vanderbilt is stronger than at any time in its history.”

Then it goes on to talk about how the new methodology’s “many flaws” are “disadvantaging many private research universities” and how they “reduce the emphasis on metrics that measure faculty and student quality.”

They continue, “As a research university, we are particularly distressed by the lack of rigor and competence that has increasingly characterized U.S. News’ annual lists.”

You’re relying on a mass-market publication that has already come under fire for its rankings practices to be a proxy for your institution’s quality. What did you think was going to happen?

I write this not to malign great institutions for chasing rankings. Instead, this is meant to be a rallying cry for higher ed (and health care, for that matter) to wake up, look closely at itself in the mirror and figure out how to better meet the needs of modern consumers of all ages and stages—and stop letting rankings be the primary/sole proof point for the value of your organization.

Public confidence in higher ed is dangerously low and dropping fast. Young men are moving away from a college education in droves. Older adults are working longer and need to keep reskilling so they can stay relevant in a fast-moving workforce.

Despite all this, Vanderbilt is worried about a five-spot drop in a ranking system they have no respect for. The country’s elite schools are shouting louder and louder about their lower and lower acceptance rates (“This year we rejected 96 percent of applicants!”). And college debt continues to skyrocket, making it impossible for many to start living their lives after they graduate.

So what can we do? Here are a few ideas:

  • Go U.S. News optional. You’ve been test optional for years and the world hasn’t ended. Stop giving so much oxygen to ranking systems.
  • Radically rethink your marketing. As I noted in a recent LinkedIn post, my 17-year-old triplets have been buried under a crushing wave of marketing materials from colleges they’ve never heard of and would never consider. How are we still trying to attract students this way? It’s time to burn your current approach to the ground and start again.
  • Fall out of (and then back into) love with higher ed. The pandemic was a generation-shaping event for today’s college-aged students, yet much of higher ed has quickly reverted to the way they approached things pre-2019. Look critically at the needs of today’s students and adjust. Make higher ed work for students, not the other way around.

Colleges and universities, hospitals and health systems. These are among society’s most critical institutions. They have the potential to positively impact people’s lives every day. Yet they have put themselves in the position of relying on others to prove their worth. Rankings systems have their value—and they’re certainly not going away—but it’s time to be less beholden to them.

Let No. 18 be good enough.

Matt Cyr leads the industry strategy team at Primacy, a brand and marketing agency serving education, health care, financial services and manufacturing. Prior to his time on the agency side, Matt led digital marketing teams at Boston Children’s Hospital, Northeastern University and Clark University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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