Volume V, #13
Guest letter by Jessica Brondo Davidoff Founder & CEO of Admittedly, matching students to their ideal colleges and providing the guidance to help them get accepted.
At the request (i.e., demand) of my parents, I recently visited their attic to clear out my old stuff. The biggest culprit was my vast collection of cassette tapes. While it was easy enough to part with Madonna and New Kids on the Block, I grew nostalgic about the recordings I made on my snazzy Casio two-cassette boombox, most of which were of the weekly radio show American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.
There must have been something about that show that compelled me to record it every week and fill up hundreds of cassettes. Perhaps it was Casey’s soporific voice. More likely, it was the suspense of finding out whether my favorite song made it to the top of the list, as determined by Casey.
While I stopped listening to Casey in college, I bet the vast majority of high school and college students today don’t care what song Casey (or his successor, Ryan Seacrest) think is #1. Why would they, when online services like Spotify, Pandora, and Songza provide them with their own personalized Top 40?
U.S. News & World Report’s Best College rankings is the American Top 40 of higher education. Problem is, colleges and universities don’t realize it’s time to throw away the cassette tapes.
It’s understandable that they don’t get this. In 1995, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute, over 40% of students reported that the U.S. News rankings were either “very important” or “somewhat important” in deciding where to go to college. Between 1995 and 2007, that percentage of students reporting rankings as “very important” increased by 50%. But when my company, Admittedly, a platform aimed at guiding students through the increasingly daunting college preparation and application processes, recently completed a survey of over 500 college-bound students representing all 50 states and a mix of public, private, charter, and home schoolers, I learned that views on higher education have shifted as quickly as tastes in pop music.
Of 27 potential factors, the U.S. News ranking came in at #20 in terms of importance in students’ decision-making process. The factors that were less important were a school’s NCAA division, the gender and race breakdown of the school, its party scene, and its Instagram feed. Twice as many students said that rankings were “not important at all” as those who said that they were “very important.”
According to our survey, here’s what students actually care about:
Colleges and universities list their majors, but students are looking for a lot more information. What percentage of students intending to complete the Computer Science major actually complete? Or how about telling students that, although they don’t offer a Computer Science degree, 30% of Math majors get jobs as software developers?
Although institutions are now obligated to include net price calculators on their sites, they generally aren’t easy to find. And if students find them, they’re typically as frustrating as completing their taxes. Students want a way to input their financial information once, set a target for out-of-pocket cost, and then search for schools that come within that budget.
While safety procedures, particularly concerning sexual assault and mental health, are in flux on many campuses, students are focused on practical safety issues like how easy it is to report a sexual assault and availability of support services for victims of sexual assault and mental health issues.
Students don’t want to go to a school that has produced thousands of underemployed baristas in the past few years. Students deserve to know if their significant investment of money, time and effort is likely to pay off.
Unfortunately, while U.S. News and the other 14 domestic rankings currently do a nice job of providing “authoritative” data on which colleges are “best,” data on the factors that actually matter are either abysmal or unavailable.
From my vantage point, the demise of U.S. News since 2007 is a result of two factors. First, tuition prices are 80% higher than they were prior to the recession yet job placement is unstable at best. Students are constantly being bombarded with scary statistics on student debt and the ROI of a degree, making them increasingly more likely to make their decisions about schools in a more practical way. Second, and equally important, is that for young people, trust in institutional authority has been supplanted by trust in technology. As Emily Badger said in a great Washington Post Wonkblog entry back in April:
I don't trust you, Random Guy Giving Me a Ride Home, but I do trust the 4.9-star average rating of all the people who've been in your car before. Maybe I don't have all that much trust in one woman renting her home on Airbnb, but I do trust the aggregated input of the 24 people who've given her high marks.
If U.S. News is already irrelevant today, it (and its ilk) will absolutely disappear when technology-powered peer data is available on factors such as majors, cost, safety and employment. Of course, not all rankings are doomed. As described in a May University Ventures Letter, Brookings has made headway on a new type of rankings that ranks colleges based on actual outcomes (i.e., salaries) compared with expected outcomes based on certain factors of the student body and institution.
It was hard for me to give up on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I imagine it will be even harder for our colleges and universities to give up on U.S. News. But institutions would be well-served to stop wasting time and money boosting the number of applications in order to decrease their acceptance rate (a major factor for U.S. News). Instead, colleges should start paying attention to the factors students actually care about and work with groups like Brookings and Admittedly that are trying to provide high school students the guidance they need to make one of life’s most important decisions.
University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.