Paul L. Caron

Friday, February 3, 2023

Is U.S. News In Trouble?

Observer, U.S. News Depends On its College Rankings. What Happens When Universities Don’t Want To Be Ranked?:

U.S. News Generic (2020)

In the past few months, numerous high-ranked universities have dropped out of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, spelling trouble for the future of the nearly 80-year old publication.

For decades, schools, deans and even students have called for an overhaul of the annual U.S. News & World Report university rankings, to no avail.

But in the past few months, a series of public statements from top-ranked universities has begun to finally pose a real threat to U.S. News, which has been the dominant player in the rankings industry for nearly 40 years. ...

“It is in many ways the jewel in their crown,” said Colin Diver, the former president of Reed College, which has refused to fill out U.S. News’ surveys since 1995. “When that starts to get tarnished, it may well tarnish the rest of their reputation.” ...

U.S. News ... declined to discuss its revenue regarding the university rankings. “They’ve been very secret about their business model,” said Diver. “But they attract a very large amount of revenue from advertising on their site.”

In 2013, the company saw 20 million viewers a month and made 20 percent of its revenue from online searches for lists, while another 30 percent came from online advertising, according to the Washington Post. Today, US News claims more than 40 million users a month visit its site for news and rankings.

U.S. News additionally makes money from College Compass, a subscription service for prospective university applicants which provides access to more detailed university data for $40 a month. The service offers personalized university rankings for students, taking into account aspects like a preference for fraternities and sororities or alumni salaries.

Other products sold by U.S. News include annual Best College guidebooks; subscriptions to Academic Insights, which offers historical data collected by U.S. News; and advertising opportunities for universities to promote programs through the publication.

Universities, in addition to other ranked entities like hospitals, can also pay to license the U.S. News “best of” badge in order to promote their inclusion on one of the publication’s lists. “It’s like a logo that schools can put on their website,” said Eric Stoller, a marketing executive at Territorium, which digitally collects university records. For smaller schools, promoting inclusion on a U.S. News ranking website is a common marketing move. ...

These various products are also a marketing method for the publication itself, according to Carlo Salerno, an economist who has advised federal and national institutions on financial aspects of higher education. “In general, the rankings exist to raise visibility about U.S. News,” he said. “When you start seeing those kinds of licensing deals from a news publication, it’s evidence that they’re becoming increasingly reliant on that as a source of revenue.”

While a number of other publications also rank aspects of universities, such as Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, which rank business schools, U.S. News has long dominated the industry of school lists and rankings, particularly for undergraduates. However, the tide has begun to turn against the rankings industry in the past decade or so, according to Salerno. “As people start to care about other things, rankings look like an ugly form of elitism.”

This change in sentiment was likely a catalyst for the recent stand taken against U.S. News by Yale Law School, according to Diver. “They’ve become increasingly troubled by the image of elite law schools as doing nothing more than feeding big Wall Street type corporate law firms and not caring very much about social justice and mobility,” he said. “They’re well aware of the fact that the rankings tend to perpetuate prestige and wealth.” ...

The publication likely won’t see an immediate impact, but instead a gradual lack of relevance in the world of higher education, according to Salerno. “They’ll only do this if it generates leads and eyeballs and they can then leverage that information,” he said. “With fewer people, eventually it’s a plant that withers, and that’s what you’ll probably get.”

U.S. News coverage:


U.S. News Response to Boycott

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