Talbot: How to think about 'Best Colleges' lists

Reputation remains largest factor in a student's college choice, but outcomes is close behind

U.S. News & World Report on Tuesday released its annual rankings of the nation's colleges and universities. But given the increased push for colleges to demonstrate ROI for students, how much do the rankings actually matter?

Pete Talbot, an EAB managing director for strategic research, has studied university strategies and leadership issues. In an interview with EAB Daily Briefing's Emily Hatton, Talbot discussed consumer priorities, rankings' marketing values, and why students and parents still care about lists.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Q: Last year Northeastern University discussed its strategy for successfully climbing the rankings with Boston Magazine, and a Washington Post piece earlier this year detailed the way that George Washington University did, too.

Why do these rankings still matter when colleges publicly acknowledge that they are easily gamed?

Talbot: For all of its shortcomings and whatever flaws there might be, the U.S. News rankings have an enormous circulation. And for many parents, choosing a college and paying for college is one of the most significant investments that they're going to make—probably second only to purchasing a house.

The U.S. News rankings have become the measuring stick. They're what the public look at. As a result, boards and presidents and others—even when they know that the system might be flawed—they're going to get held to account.

And because the U.S. News rankings have become a go-to measure here, it's hard to dislodge them.

Q: In the past few years, there's been a national focus on college ROI—with some op-eds even urging students not to attend at all. Many of the 2016 presidential candidates have college affordability and student debt-repayment plans. How has this focus affected the marketing value of the traditional U.S. News rankings?

Talbot: Reputation is hard to escape from. It's established itself as sort of the benchmark and people look to it. People want easy solutions—they want Consumer Reports, they want Angie's List, they want U.S. News. They want somebody to do the hard work of vetting institutions for them.

That being said, I do think that increasingly parents and students are interested in other measures. They want to know, "What is it going to cost me?"

We're seeing more and more marketing about outcomes and a shift away from liberal arts and humanities because people are very concerned about employability and salary. I think those are all legitimate trends. I'm not sure whether they will ever unseat rankings and reputation as the driver of decision making, but there's a lot more to the decision making than there once was.

It used to be, "go to the best school you got into," but now there are a lot of people questioning the wisdom of that kind of approach. People are taking a hard look at what does it means financially.

I don't think we're at a point where it has eclipsed the perception of quality. And again that's going to be informed by any number of things, including the rankings. But it is a growing consideration, and we're seeing in our enrollment management research that this is an acceleration of a long standing trend. It's a migration to value, particularly at flagship public intuitions where enrollments are at record levels.

Q: What do you think the tipping point is for consumers valuing the ROI over the rankings or over the prestige of a school?

Talbot: I don't think we know if there's a tipping point.

Now there are certainly some things that are challenging for universities and colleges that I think will make cost and pricing more important than simply the rankings. We've seen a flattening of demographic growth trends. Now that growth tends to be in low-income, first-generation, and less academically prepared segments of the population. There is increased competition for the most prepared and financially stable students. You're going to see more and more schools trying to compete on price.

Q: Why is it so difficult to break free of these rankings?

Talbot: It has taken hold in the public psyche. Everyone looks at U.S. News & World Report. It's sort of shorthand for knowing where schools stand. And certainly colleges and universities face a lot of pressure from their boards and from alumni.

If a school falls in the rankings, people want to know what's going on, what's gone wrong. They see presidents and others as custodians of their places in the rankings. I think it would be hard for universities to just ignore them altogether, because they're getting pressure from all sides to maintain that status.

It is human nature. Everybody wants to know where they stand relative to others. Everybody likes a scoreboard and the rankings reduces it to an easy, a numeric standard, where they sit in the pecking order.

Q: How much of a college president's mind should be focused on the U.S. News' rankings?

Talbot: They're hard to ignore. Again, they do influence consumers' decisions. There may be some evidence that outcomes or amount of aid awarded or the cost is rising in importance. Data from our study shows that reputation remains most important thing to people—and reputation is informed by lots of different things.

Right below that is outcomes, and aid awarded has been on a steep climb lately. Close behind aid is cost. 

Q: Is it possible to even rank schools?

Talbot: It's really hard and that's partly why the federal government gave up on trying to rank quality, because no one can agree on what quality actually means. Is it taking a student who might not otherwise have gone to higher education and getting them to graduate, getting them a good job, and improving their circumstances in life? Yes, that's the high quality outcome for that student and for that institution. So is being in a classroom with the best and the brightest in the country and having a lecture with a Nobel laureate.

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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