Although college ranking systems continue to get blasted by higher education pundits, millions of readers still can’t turn away from them and are proud to brag when their college rises into the Top 20 or their university catapults itself five spots in an academic field.
The benchmark through the years—and the one most often criticized—is U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges. There are scores of others, like Niche, that go beyond the standard overall ranking (U.S. News does, too) and measure everything under the campus sun, from partying to athletics to dorms to political leans. Search long enough and your college might be No. 1 on some measure.
Recently, a new ranking metric was presented to University Business from Similarweb, a platform that monitors web traffic, something of keen interest to college and university leaders. In particular, researchers have been monitoring admissions page traffic, not just traffic to an institution’s home page or website.
“A lot of [rankings companies] are looking at academic performance, looking at income, earning potential after school—all good indicators,” senior analyst Richard Krueger says of those other rankings. “We set out to use our data to put together a list that would shed light on which schools are sort of winning the online wars, in drawing the most traffic, as online marketing becomes more and more crucial to universities to reach their students. We’re seeing schools become better digital marketers. And this list is a good indicator of that.”
Similarweb’s 2022 Top 100 College Report is full of surprises, but in a good way for the institutions that are on the list because they are really getting users to get them where they want them to go: coveted admissions pages, which in turn can lead to applications. No. 1 is Purdue University, an institution strong on student resources, marketing savvy and embrace of technology. The City University of New York’s Baruch College came in as a surprise No. 2 overall, but Krueger points out that the Wall Street Journal named it one of the best value schools in the nation, and the college did well to capitalize on that through strong public relations work. At No. 3 was The Ohio State University, leading a group of seven publics in the top 10 and notably one of dozens in the Top 100 that are test-optional.
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Colleges that succeeded in driving more traffic to sites during the fall also did so thanks to heady pandemic responses and campaigns around the return to face-to-face modalities. It didn’t hurt that many of the leading institutions pitched financial aid or tuition freezes—like Purdue—or the many activities still occurring on campuses. Purdue’s audience during the 2021 admission season was an astounding 19.8 million visitors, more than double that of Baruch and OSU.
The rest of the Top 10 all eclipsed 6.5 million visitors:
- University of Pennsylvania (8.33 million)
- University of Wisconsin-Madison (8.25 million)
- University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (7.20 million)
- New York University (6.86 million)
- Boston University (6.76 million)
- University of California, Davis (6.59 million)
- Texas A&M University (6.58 million)
Inside the numbers
Two things about the Top 10 stand out: First, there is only one Ivy League school (and no Stanford, CalTech or MIT) despite the robust application numbers they all enjoy. Second, a school like NYU received more than 100,000 applications, which might mean they are turning those visits into real interest. One notable blip for the Top 10 is that they all lost ground over the previous year, led by a drop of 16% by Illinois and even 15% by Purdue.
The colleges making up the most ground year-over-year were The Cooper Union, a private college in New York City known for architecture, art and engineering (+29%), Hamilton College (+20%), Syracuse University (+19%) and the University of Notre Dame (16%). Six other powerhouse academic institutions cracked the Top 10 fastest movers, including Bentley University (15+), Washington University in St. Louis (15+), Georgia Tech (14%), Harvard (+13%), Barnard College (+13%) and Northwestern (+12%).
Despite its academic prowess, Harvey Mudd College (-34%) lost the ground on admissions visitors, according to Similarweb, followed by the University of Colorado-Boulder (29%) and the University of Pittsburgh (23%). Five of the remaining six were public universities in California, which all saw admissions page visits drop by more than 20%—CSU Fullerton, San Francisco State, San Diego State, UC-Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara and CSU-Los Angeles.
The slight majority of visitors to all but one of the Top 10, and 83% of admission pages overall, were women. India dominated the traffic share among international visitors at more than 70%, with Canada and the Philippines each representing 7% shares. On the radar for many of those students: Swarthmore College, MIT, Carleton College, Colby College and Colorado-Boulder. Arizona State, Harvard and Stanford were also in the Top 10. Only 16 of the top 50 in the rankings were private universities, indicating that cost likely was a factor dissuading students from going to those admission pages.
So how did Similarweb manage to get all of this research?
“We collect this data by various methods,” Krueger says. “We combine it and use AI and machine extrapolations. We’re looking at other things like duration, or time on the site, number of pages on the site—these are all metrics we’re able to bring to light. And it is pretty deep, where we’re able to look at male versus female and geolocation. The developers are based in Israel. They’re good at working with data and getting it from different places and making it useful.”
The company does research, digital marketing and intelligence for businesses across the world, but anyone can visit, type in a company or college name and see its traffic results. In February, CNN had 699 million global visitors. Fox News had 299 million. Google had 90.8 billion. YouTube had 35 billion. And if traffic drops like a rock, like researchers at Similarweb witnessed in the months before Peloton tanked, you might know that the company—or institution, in this case—is in trouble.
As for higher education, Krueger said he did notice before they decided on admissions that web traffic to home pages was especially high at MIT (50 million in February), Harvard (49.8 million) and Stanford (21.7 million), because of their popularity in fields such as healthcare and technology that would draw in other guests not necessarily interested in attending.
It will be intriguing to see how trends change on the pages over the next year as schools begin to open up even more. Krueger also mentioned one possibility of expanding and adding another report that could be interesting in the future:
“We might look at online universities, who’s winning that game as that’s growing,” Krueger says.