American news makes money off some of its biggest critics: universities

Jonathan Henry, vice president at the University of Maine at Augusta, expects to receive an email this month. He fears it a little too.

The message, if it arrives, will tell you that US News & World Report has once again ranked your university’s online programs among the best in the country. The story suggests that the email will also prompt the university to pay US News, through a licensing agent, thousands of dollars for the right to announce its rankings.

For more than a year, US News has been embroiled in another acrimonious dispute over the value of college rankings, this time with dozens of law and medical schools pledging not to provide data to the publisher, saying the rankings sometimes unduly influence the priorities of universities. .

But school records and interviews show that universities nonetheless fuel the rankings industry, collectively investing millions of dollars in it.

Many low-profile universities are struggling to stem declining enrollments and offset shrinking budgets. And any endorsement that can attract students, administrators say, is attractive.

Maine in Augusta spent $15,225 last year for the right to market US News “badges” (beautiful stamps with the US News logo) commemorating three honors: the 61st-ranked online veterans degree program, the online bachelor’s degree in business ranked 79 and 104. -Online bachelor’s degree ranked.

Henry, who oversees the school’s enrollment management and marketing, said there was too much risk of being overshadowed and commercialized by competing schools that pay to display their shiny badges.

“If we could ignore them, wouldn’t that be great?” Mr. Henry said on US News. “But you can’t ignore the leviathan that they are.”

Colleges also can’t ignore how families evaluate schools. “The Amazonification of how we judge the quality of a product,” she said, has infiltrated higher education, as both consumers and prospective students seek order in chaos.

Money flows from schools large and small.

The University of Nebraska at Kearney, which has about 6,000 students, purchased a “digital marketing license” from US News for $8,500 in September. The Citadel, South Carolina’s military school, moved in August to spend $50,000 for the right to use its rankings online, in print and on television, among other places. In 2022, the University of Alabama spent $32,525 to promote its rankings in programs such as engineering and nursing.

Critics believe the payments, coming from schools of all sizes and wealth, enable and incentivize a ranking system they see as harmful.

“I still can’t believe that higher education has collectively paid them to bias what we do in higher education,” said Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, who helped lead the uprising among the law and medical schools. . The money “devoted to this unserious enterprise,” she said, could have been used to “transform lives,” perhaps through financial aid or recruiting low-income students.

US News said its business licensing its logo reflects its reputation. The rankings, US News leaders said, help students and parents find clarity in a crowded and confusing college market, and allow quality schools to more easily break through to prospects.

US News is a private company and says little about its finances, which are bolstered by revenue from other ratings, including hospitals, mutual funds, college savings accounts and per diems. But Eric J. Gertler, chief executive of US News, acknowledged in an interview that the publisher attracts millions of universities seeking to share the appeal of US News’ credibility.

“This really came from a community push that wanted to be associated with our brand,” said Gertler, whose company began licensing digital badges in 2010, the same year it retired its print news magazine. According to US News, “significantly less than half” of its revenue tied to educational rankings comes from licensing badges.

US News says its education website attracts at least 100 million users a year, and a survey that Art & Science Group, a higher education consultancy, published in September showed that 58 percent of seniors college-bound high school students “considered” the rankings to some extent. . These data have reinforced the belief among many university administrators that it would be dangerous to pretend that the rankings industry simply does not exist.

When Mr. Henry sits in his office a few miles from the Maine State House and surveys New England’s college landscape, he sees many schools competing for students. And, like many of his colleagues across the country, he fears that prospective students will assume his school is of lower quality if it doesn’t promote its rankings with the glow of flashy badges.

At the same time, opportunities for schools to make the cut are growing as publishers expand their reach (and potential profits) by creating new accolades.

US News offers badges in more than 130 categories for graduate programs, including paleontology, petroleum engineering, and doctor of nursing practice in adult acute gerontology programs. There are at least 85 categories for undergraduate programs, including new ones for economics and psychology degrees.

In total, if each school purchased all available badges (just from the traditional college student rankings that were released in September) US News would sell over 4,400.

Best undergraduate nursing programs? About 400 schools could purchase a card.

Gertler, who said editors develop new categories considering whether they would attract enough interest, defended the size of the nursing category, which he suggested was partly a response to campus feedback.

“I certainly know,” he said, “that we ended up ranking higher because more nursing schools wanted attention.”

Although US News remains the industry giant, it is not the only rating service that sees schools as potential customers. The Wall Street Journal and its partners, for example, sell kits to universities with “prepared graphics and artwork that support immediate use of the award in their marketing and communications campaigns.” (The New York Times does not rank colleges, but the Times Company licenses certain intellectual property for products such as best-selling or notable books and favorites on its product recommendation website, Wirecutter.)

Todd Gottula, who directs marketing efforts at Nebraska-Kearney, estimated he receives a request from a ratings provider almost weekly.

“Our university doesn’t take a lot of them very seriously,” he said. Although Gottula said it was difficult to track how use of the US News logo affects a metric like enrollment, he said the university viewed the publisher as “the industry standard” and believed that being able to use its emblem strengthened the credibility of the publisher. university.

However, he said the price gave him “heartburn.”

University rankings have come under intense criticism in recent years after arguments over priorities, errors by editors and faulty data presentations by universities. Yet some of its fiercest critics grudgingly marvel at the business model.

“I understand why it makes money, but I think it has major negative consequences,” said Daniel Diermeier, the chancellor of Vanderbilt University, who condemned the reconstructed formula that US News used for its most recent undergraduate rankings and dropped his school five places to the bottom. No. 18.

The chancellor said last month that although Vanderbilt had occasionally purchased the rights to US News badges in the past, he did not expect that to continue.

Several other universities that have licensed US News materials in recent years, including Citadel and Alabama, declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.

US News insisted that its algorithm does not consider whether the publisher has a business relationship with a school, and contracts showed that US News tells schools that license badges “will in no way affect, positively or negatively, rankings or ratings”. Yale Law, for example, has not authorized US News badges, but has maintained a share of the top spot for decades. Even after Dean Gerken led a ranking boycott, the school remained number one.

But leaders at schools like Yale acknowledge that they have less need to advertise a ranking than most institutions. Many universities are much closer to the situation at the University of Maine at Augusta: eager to welcome students, under pressure, chasing any advantage.

“I always feel like you’re closing one eye when you write that check, because you feel like you’re drinking that Kool-Aid,” Mr. Henry said. “But every year we’ve said, ‘This is still important.’”

And so you will wait, again, for the email.