Playing the rankings card in higher education marketing

Photo by Chris Floyd

Last night I had the privilege of talking to a small group of college seniors about higher education marketing, and specifically, the role that college rankings play in a school’s public image. My audience was a savvy group and well-above-average students academically. So they understand the purpose of higher education marketing, which is, first and foremost, to support student recruitment.

The goal of a college admissions office is to obtain as many high-quality applicants as possible from year to year. Higher quantities of applicants indicate that an increasing number of individuals are aware of and interested in your school. Plus, the more high quality students that apply, the more a college has to select from. And this, in turn, helps recruitment efforts for the future.

So what about college rankings? For sure, they’re widely loved and hated. The argument isn’t as simple as, “Those who do poorly in rankings hate them.” Not so. Many schools who would otherwise do well in certain college rankings opt out of consideration, for various reasons, one being that certain rankings systems have unfair judging methodology.

In my role as a higher education marketer, media and public relations is my specialty. And like any job you’ve had or will ever have, there’ll be some great parts and some not so great. For example: I’m currently working with a biology professor who is creating a class to analyze the Gulf oil spill. This is a publicity project I’m really excited about.

On the other hand, I don’t get as excited about publicizing college rankings. Not because rankings are bad or because they don’t have their place, but because there are other characteristics of any college or university that better describe a school’s personality and worth, such as academic programs, special professors, and high-achieving students. And that’s what I love to focus on my efforts on.

We must take rankings with a grain of salt, so to speak: that is, not too seriously. We can definitely take pride in them and share the news with the groups of people we think might also take pride in them. We should incorporate them a bit into our recruitment efforts, because there are some folks (especially parents!) who take rankings seriously, and if we’re at the top of them, folks should be aware of that.

That said, it’s good not to base an entire marketing strategy on rankings. Why? Well, as we all know, rankings are dynamic. They change. Look at my school, for example: In one ranking, we were #13 in 2008, #14 in 2009, and this past year, for the 2010 rankings, we fell 10 spots to #24. What happened? We didn’t change, and we especially didn’t get worse. Did other schools get that much better? Who knows.

Let’s turn it around. If a university was consistently ranked poorly, would they go around feeling like they were bad just because U.S. News or Consumers Digest said they were? Of course not! They would acknowledge these rankings exist (they wouldn’t publicize them), and then disregard the negativity and go on, knowing they’re better than that.

And I think that’s also a good way to approach positive rankings. We acknowledge they exist, we publicize them a little, then we go about our business, because we don’t need a third party to define us. Our students, our faculty and our staff members do that. As do our alumni, who are really any school’s biggest advocates, if those relationships are cultivated properly.

College rankings are like any other third-party validation: if you overexpose and run them into the ground, folks are going to tire of hearing about them, which can easily turn anything positive into something negative. And that’s not what any college’s marketing team sets out to do.

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6 thoughts on “Playing the rankings card in higher education marketing

  1. JC Cissell says:

    I think you’re right on. In my relatively short experience, we like to say we’re too cool for the rankings, but we do make a little noise when we move up. We certainly don’t base our marketing efforts around the rankings, which are somewhat unpredictable from year to year. They’re worth a tweet and a not-too-prominent mention on recruiting materials.

  2. John Henry Malik says:

    Well said. If you got it, flaunt it! If you don’t, just remember that you define yourself better than anyone else does, or can. Agreed, there are many more facets of a college education than outsider’s rankings. And those can be played on quite well by the accomplished marketer.

  3. That is funny, I just posted something about rankings with a grain of salt!

    Yes, but they need to be dealt with, because they are the reality. As much as they take away from what college selection SHOULD be about, they are a valuable resource–to an extent. But the troubling thing is that students do take these rankings as gospel.

    I think one of the problems is that the USNWR lumps schools together. For example, Michigan, William and Mary, Boston College, and Georgia Tech are all great schools, but they are all so different and should not be ranked against each other.

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