U.S. News rankings out, digital marketing in?

"Consumers—or, the students—are much more in the driver's seat than they ever have been," says Rebecca Epperson, CEO and founder of Chartwell Agency, a higher education marketing firm.

The stream of graduate schools opting out of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings may be growing to include entire universities, but what these schools will do to market themselves effectively remains unanswered.

When Yale Law School opted out in November, a flood of other law schools, such as U.C. Berkeley and Georgetown, followed suit. Soon enough, medical schools from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania quit it as well. Harvard’s schools of law and medicine both took the high road. Now, more than a dozen high-profile medical schools and 40+ law schools have quit the rankings, according to the Hechinger Report. It all began with one.

Now, Colorado College and Rhode Island School of Design are among the first schools offering undergraduate programs to break up with U.S. News since Reed College did almost 30 years ago, and if Yale Law School’s influential exodus proves an accurate forecast of what’s to come next, freshman applicants will be lost as they seek out schools that are their best fit.

“We see so many colleges and universities who over the course of time have added pages and programs that they’ve loaded down their websites with so much information, and it’s very hard for a potential incoming student to learn more or navigate their process,” says Rebecca Epperson, CEO and founder of Chartwell Agency, a higher education marketing firm. “You have to make sure your website is ready to rock n’ roll and receive students.”

U.S. News’ annual college ranking is far from a perfect metric for applicants to use when shopping for schools, but a recent report from Anthology suggests that a considerable chunk of students struggle to find the right fit when relying on school resources. Of the 1,443 respondents who are enrolled or are considering enrolling in undergrad or graduate programs, 65% of students turn to the college or university’s website as their first source of information, yet almost half ended up wishing they had an advisor through the enrollment process to help answer questions.

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U.S. News grabs your attention when you click on a ranked college. Flashy numbers pop out noting costs, retention rate, popular majors and enrollment figures. Potential students researching schools for the first time on their own are looking for quick, effective information that’s easily digestible and relevant to them. Epperson stresses that schools should follow suit and maximize a school’s “virtual front door”: their website.

“What happens to a website with long load times or that isn’t mobile-friendly? You bump off and go somewhere else,” she said.

Gone are the days of school tabling and postcards. Replacing them are data analyses and SEO audits. Specifying what type of students resonate the most with a college or university should be a top priority for a college’s marketing strategy, according to Epperson. Schools can break down student data by demographic, such as the enrollment and retention rate of first-generation students and those of a particular major, to name but two.

Understanding student demographic and psychographic data can inform a school’s search engine optimization (SEO) team and pinpoint what keywords are the most effective to retain student interest on school websites.

Colorado College and Rhode Island School of Design may not want to play the rankings game anymore, and many more may follow suit, but if they believe in their school’s value, they better find creative ways to shine.

“Consumers—or the students—are much more in the driver’s seat than they ever have been,” Epperson says.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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