Institute for Higher Education

The Influence of U.S. News Rankings and School Perception

The Power of ‘Brand Queries’ in Higher Education

Last week, U.S. News & World Report released their 2024 rankings – and whether institutional leaders want to admit it or not, these rankings are a big deal in higher education.

Online searching can play a huge role in shaping the perception of institutions to prospective students’ and their families. In many cases, when you Google a school, U.S. News & World Report is ranked fourth in a ‘brand query.’ A brand query is defined as a search of the school by name using Google. So, for example, a search for Monster University (if it were real), would find the university website first, similar results as second, Wikipedia third, and U.S. News fourth.

Hence the power of U.S. News & World Report populating your potential student’s search results. This phenomenon is becoming increasingly significant today as conversations about rankings continue to gain momentum.

Unveiling the Statistics: Brand Queries and Click-Through Rates

At 3E, we ran some numbers, compiling brand query statistics from various schools. Surprisingly, only 20% of people conducting brand queries actually click on the university website link. The average click-through rate for a brand query stands at 19%, meaning that on average, 79% of people do not engage with the official school website. Despite the influence that a search rankings’ order can hold on a user, we can assume that the the likelihood of clicks to the U.S. News Report ranking is even higher than imagined.

The Significance of Rankings: Differentiating Similar Schools

In a world where schools share similarities in programs and class sizes, rankings emerge as a crucial differentiator. When schools seem indistinguishable, a 20-point difference in rankings can become the sole objective metric.

Despite debates about methodology and fairness, rankings frame how individuals perceive and compare schools. Although those are legitimate arguments—when everything else looks the same (program list, class size, student offerings, etc.)— then a 20-point difference might be the deciding difference.

Living Beyond Rankings: Defining School Identity

To thrive in a post-ranking world, a school must assert its identity and carve a distinct niche in the market. When a school confidently defines its positioning and unique attributes, rankings become less defining. However, this is no easy feat, as many institutions aspire to be everything to everyone. Creating a distinctive identity requires a willingness to draw boundaries and say, “we are this, and if you are not this, we’re not the place for you.”

Draw a clear line in the sand, mark the distinct identity of your school in the marketplace and surely, rankings will become less important.


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