Do You Rate?

An article in the New York Times today discusses the growing proliferation of college rankings as focus shifts to trying to evaluate colleges based on their economic value.

Traditionally, rankings of colleges have tended to focus on their selectivity/exclusivity, but now the focus has shifted to what are politely called “outcomes,” in particular, how many graduates of a particular college get jobs in their chosen fields, and how well they are paid. Interestingly, many of the existing college rankings, such as the well-known one produced by U.S. News, have been slow to adopt to this new area of interest, creating opportunities for new entrants. For example, PayScale (an InfoCommerce Model of Excellence winner) has produced earnings-driven college rankings since 2008. Much more recently, both the Economist and the Wall Street Journal have entered the fray with outcomes-driven college rankings. And let’s not forget still another college ranking system, this one from the U.S. Department of Education.

At first blush, the tendency is to say, “enough is enough.” Indeed, one professor quoted in the Times article somewhat humorously noted that there are so many college rankings that, “We’ll soon be ranking the rankings.”

However, there is typically always room for another useful ranking. The key is utility. Every ranking system is inherently an alchemic blend of input data and weightings. What data are used and how they are evaluated depend on what the ratings service thinks is important. For some, it is exclusivity. For others it is value. There are even the well-known (though somewhat tongue in cheek) rankings of top college party schools.

And since concepts like “quality” and “value” are in the eye of the beholder with results often a function of available data, two rating systems can produce wildly varying results. That’s why when multiple rating systems exist, most experts suggest considering several of them to get the most rounded picture and most informative result.

It’s this lack of a single right way to create a perfect ranking that means that in almost every market, multiple competing rating systems can exist and thrive. Having a strong brand that can credential your results always helps, but in many cases, you can be competitive just with a strong and transparent methodology. It helps too when your rankings aren’t too far out of whack with general expectations. Totally unintuitive ranking results are great for a few days of publicity and buzz, but longer term they struggle with credibility issues.

A take-away for publishers is that just because you weren’t first to market with the rankings for your industry, there may still be a solid opportunity for you, if you have better data, a better methodology and solid credibility as a neutral information provider.