The Higher Ed Marketer
The Higher Ed Marketer

Episode 80 · 3 months ago

The Problem With University Rankings


University rankings play a big part in where a prospective student chooses to go to school, but most rankings focus on prestige and what other peers of institutions think of each other rather than the influence the university is making on the students and alumni.  

Dr. Jed Macosko is the President and Research Director at and a professor of Physics at Wake Forest University. At Academic influence, they use a ranking engine that assesses influence in the academic world by ingesting, analyzing, and evaluating huge amounts of data. Because of this, the data is less prone to bias and manipulation, giving accurate rankings to universities. In this episode, Dr. Macosko brings thoughtful insights and resources into how higher ed marketers can use rankings to tell their stories and show the value of their institution.  

Join us as we discuss:

  • How Dr. Macosko got involved in ranking universities and what data they use for academic influence
  • What is important to future students and parents that the current ranking systems doesn’t take into consideration
  • The alternative solutions that academic influence offers that other ranking systems don’t
  • How higher ed marketers can use rankings to help market their school better 

The High Red Marketer podcast is sponsored by the ZEMI app enabling colleges and universities to engage interested students before they even apply. You're listening to The Higher Ed Marketer, a podcast geared towards marketing professionals in higher education. This show will tackle all sorts of questions related to student recruitment, donor relations, marketing trends, new technologies, and so much more. If you're looking for conversations centered around where the industry is going, this podcast is for you. Let's get into the show. Hello everyone, and welcome to the High Ed Marketer podcast. As always, I'm Troy Singer along with Bart Kaylor, and today we talked to Dr Jed maccasco. He is a professor of physics at Wake Forest, but he also has an expertise in influence and influence within the high end community, and we're going to talk to him today about the problem with university rankings. And he is someone that is not only very knowledgeable, but brings that knowledge in a very interesting and charismatic way. Yeah, it's a great conversation. We talk a lot about influence and how influence really drives a lot of our decision making. As individuals, uh, even outside of higher education. But um, you know so many of the university rankings, and Jed will get into the details a little bit more about how it's it's really focused on prestige and what other peers of institutions think of each other rather than the influence that the institution is actually making on the change lives of individuals who are students who are attending there and the alumni and so Jed brings a lot of really good practical advice and and some resources to the table that I think are beneficial for higher ED marketers on how we translate our stories into how that plays out in the rankings. And so, um, great episode, looking forward to it. Here's our conversation, Dr Macsco, Jed. Thank you for joining us today. And we like to ask our guests at the very beginning, there's something that they've recently learned that would either be interesting or something that may have surprised you that you can share with our audience. Well, I guess when I was visiting Target this week with my kids, we were shopping for back to school items and we walked past the infant section and there were some socks that had hedgehogs on them, and they caught my children's eye and they said, we've got to get these hedgehog socks, and you'll regret it if we don't buy them now. And I just thought to myself, Wow, you know, hedgehogs really sell something about the way they look. I mean, they really catch people's eye. Our family had a pet hedgehog for a while. She recently passed away. But I will say that hedgehogs are cuter than you would expect, and they are great for marketing. Thank you. And for those of you who don't know, Jed is a doctor and a professor of physics at Wake Forest University, but has his hands and a lot of different things. So, Jed, if you could give us a little bit about yourself and the work that you are doing as it relates to influence. Yeah. Well, I I started off in Minnesota growing up, then went out to Boston for my undergraduate degree at m I T, went to the West Coast at Berkeley for my pH d, and then wound up here at wake Forest in the Southeast, which has been a lot of fun. Uh. And as you pointed out, I'm a physics professor, so it is a little bit strange that I'm working on ranking universities and here at this podcast talking to people who helped market you versities. But you know,... my dad's a university professor. I've grown up in sort of the academia climate, and I'm just interested in this. So there's a lot of things about the ranking business that require a scientific mindsets. And I think that the years that I've spent doing research on the molecular machines inside of a cell have helped me piece together what we're doing with ranking universities. By their influence, that's great and I love that just to kind of give everybody a little bit of context. Um, there's been a lot of a lot of discussions in the past few years about you know, their ranking systems. I mean, there's there's the standards out their US News and World Report that that's been you know, active for decades on ranking schools. And obviously, if you're on the list, you love to tell it and you love to show that. But for the vast majority of schools that are really important, schools that make a difference in lives, they never show up on the list. And and uh, I think there's a lot of really good, um good information that's being discussed about that a lot more people are talking about it. Um, there's there's high profile conversations on major media outlets that are also talking about it. And so we're gonna just kind of get into this conversation with Jet about that and so talk a little bit about how from what I understand and what I've heard that so much of the problem with US News News World Report rankings as well as some of the other ones, it tends to be very one dimensional. So tell us a little bit about what that means to you. Yeah, this uh ranking that everybody has heard about and has been going since the nineteen eighties is a fairly one dimensional kind of ranking. I mean, certainly if you go to the US News website, you will see that there are lots of different variables they go into the ranking, but the lions share of the ranking that you see is due to prestige and it comes in many forms. The first and foremost is they do survey of people at other institutions and they ask those people to rank each institution that they can. And so if you're a well known school, people are going to rank you hire and and they typically ask the president, the provost, and the admissions deans at all the different schools. So if you can get to those three individuals and um, you know, make your case that you're a great school. Great, But most people are gonna be thinking about Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Standard, all those typical schools when they start filling out their survey. So that's that's where it starts. Now, again, there are other variables, but they don't change that dimension. And if you were to plot, let's say, the amount of endowment a school has versus their US News ranking, it would be a pretty good correlation. And again, endowment reflects how much people are willing to give to that school because how how prestigious they think it is, So it ends up being the same thing. So that's a little bit sad that it's so undimensional, because certainly, when you go to a university, maybe one thing you care about is how prestigious it is in the eyes of people in the United States and in the world. But that's not the only thing you care about when you go there, So there should be ways to rank other aspects of the university. So I guess that begs the question of how does the physics professor get involved in this sandbox. Yeah. Well, it happened because a friend of mine was doing an educational venture and previously the chairman of the physics department had encouraged me to take advantage of this new technology called an iPad, and he said, look, Jed, this is this is gonna be hot. You know, this is way back when iPads were just coming out. He said, you know, with a kindle, you couldn't really flip through pages of a textbook the way that people typically flipped through textbooks to find a chapter or a homework problem or a figure that they want to see. Now, iPads you can really have a true textbook...

...replacement. So we made a textbook replacement called the biobook. And when my friend, who is doing this educational venture, found out that I had had some success with my colleagues doing this biobook, he wanted me to take part of this educational venture. And that educational venture has become academic influence dot com, So it is become this thing that uses big data to rank universities. Let's talk about that for a second, because I mean, when we talk about big data, there's a lot of different there's a lot of big data out there. I mean, we all know how Amazon can kind of make suggestions based on our purchases. I mean that's probably the first and foremost way that people understand big data a little bit. But I mean talk about some of these different databases that that academic influences using to be able to start to put this this data set around to start kind of seeing what the real influence of these institutions are. Yeah, well, before I even got involved in this side of the educational venture, other people that are better at computer science, we're doing this before I was involved, and they had already latched onto two databases, Wikipedia and Wiki Media Media, which is um sorry, wiki data, which is a place where you can find all of the back end information that goes into Wikipedia. So Wiki data is like got your name, your occupation, your age, all these things in a nice tableture format. And then Wikipedia, of course is what we all use all the time. It has paragraphs of information and all that good stuff. So those two databases were what they were using in order to rank first individuals and then finding out from Wiki data where those individuals had gone to college or where they were employed as a university professor or an an administrator at a university, and from that they started ranking universities. And then I got involved, and we realized there were a lot of schools that didn't have really even a single person listed in Wikipedia or wiki data. You know, some really good small schools UM and so we decided, well, we've got to get better big data. So we went to all of the papers that have ever been published and UM. You know that that database was cross ref and there's another one similar called Semantic scholar and between those two databases we got obviously a lot more information about these smaller schools. So we were able to rank people that attended the smaller schools, the big schools, the prestigious ones, the not so prestigious ones, and figure out who UM went to what school and which schools were churning out the best and most influential people, and which schools were hiring and using the talent of the best and most influential people. So that's how we ranked universities. That's great, and I know one of the one of the outspoken critics of the U S News and World Report ranking system is Malcolm Gladwell, And uh we had UM Walter kimbro On our podcast um last fall and uh the week before his podcast was was dropping at the high ed Marketer, he was on Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, And I know you're familiar with that that podcast, and and maybe tell us a little bit about how that represents a lot of what you all are trying to do, because I think Malcolm Gladwell kind of, you know, did it a little bit more in a storytelling standpoint, but you guys are backing it up with data. So walk us through that. Yeah. So I remember one of my friends who's a big podcast listener. He has a long commute and he heard that podcast right when it first came out, and he sent me a text saying, you gotta listen to this podcast since you're all about ranking. So I listened to The Lord of the Rankings and all that. It was really interesting, and some of the other people on my team listened to and we decided did that we really needed... take seriously what Malcolm Gladwell was saying, and we needed to find a way to rank universities based on what they are doing with the resources they are given. So he talked about my little hundred million dollars, like if you had a hundred million dollars and if it was a little amount of money to you because you're so wealthy, well you could give it away to somebody to do something with. And that's what this one philanthropist did. But they didn't give it to Stanford or Harvard, m I T or one of these top schools. They gave it to a small school and it had a big impact on helping people learn skills and become more productive. And um, so if if you want to rank universities based on, hey, where should I put my hundred million dollars, you really want to do it based on this concept of academic stewardship. So you've been given a certain amount of funds, how well are you stewarding those funds in order to get good academic outcomes? And so we created a a ranking called academic Stewardship, and sure enough, schools like Dillard, where president Kim Kim Roll was a president previously, showed up very highly. He he was the number four teen school on that list, and several other HBCUs were right up near the top, like numbers one, five and seven or something like that. So really showing that these schools that haven't been given a ton of endowment and therefore we'll never show up really highly. At US News World Report are still hitting it out of the park in terms of generating students that are influential and even being able to attract faculty members and administrators that are super influential. So we, uh, we took seriously what what Malcolm Gladwell was saying, and like you said, we put some actual data behind that. That's great. So as we look at that, I mean, you know, this is the High ED Marketer podcast, so a lot of higher ED marketers are listening, and so one of the things they're gonna say, Okay, this is a great jed. You've got some great methodology behind the way that you're ranking these schools. You've got some great data. At the end of the day, what's actually important to these future students slash parents and I guess just society in general, that these current ranking systems don't take into consideration, well, they don't take into consideration something that um One of the presidents of a of a good school, his name is Santa on No and he recently moved from University of British Columbia to University of Michigan as the president. Um he uh, he said, Look, Jed, there should be as many rankings as there are students because everybody is different. So I think the thing that that that parents and students and everybody should take into account is that just because there's this list at US News and World Report that comes out every year, it doesn't mean that's the list for you. You have to take into consideration to things that are important to you. If prestige is important to you, that is obviously great place to start. But even then, well you do you want to be prestigious at a uh AN engineering type school, Well maybe m I T. Then is should be at the top of your list and not Princeton or whatever the one was at the top of the list. So you you should be, you know, considering different aspects even within prestige. But a lot of people don't care that much about prestigious. They just want to make sure that they're learning really important things, or they're getting a well rounded education, or who knows, maybe they care you know that the sports teams are going to be good or fun, or the environment's good. So there are just as many rankings as there are students, and that's the important thing. To keep in mind. We talk a lot about it on the show. Schools are really struggling today that make the same at spend work CPMs are up eighty nine percent year over a year on Facebook and Instagram. Our college clients are no longer looking for rented audiences. They're looking for an owned community where they can engage students even before they apply. This is why Zemi has become so crucial for our clients. With over one millions students, close to ten tho five star ratings, consistently...

...ranked as one of the top social lapps, and recently one of Apple's Hot Apps of the Week. There simply isn't anything out there like it, and we have seen it all. Zemy not only provides the best space for student engagement, but the most unique and actional data for their one sixty college and university partners. We know firsthand from our clients that ze me is a must have strategy for gen z. Check them out now at colleges dot zem dot com. That's Colleges dot z e m e dot com and yes, tell them. Barton Troy sent you, could you tell us how academic influencers offers alternative solutions to the rankings that are more widely known. Okay, well, every other ranking pretty much offers something different than U S News because U S News is, you know, sort of a gold standard. Everybody has heard of it. So if you're gonna start a ranking, come, but you better do something a little different and um, and so let me just sort of walk through some of the possibilities. So one of possibilities, you're gonna say, Okay, we don't care about prestige, we care about the bottom line. If I invest you know, a certain amount of money into this school, will I get that money back? And more so, it's like a return on investment type of ranking. And some schools do really well because they don't charge you a whole lot, you know. Um. Other times it's like, well, I don't just want to, you know, look at the percent of money that I'm gonna be making, because if I put in five dollars and get back ten dollars, well, yeah, that's return on my investment. But I'm only making five dollars. You know what about the schools that will help me get to a really high level of income And that's a slightly different r o I, but still focused on the money we come up with something that's not so money focused. It doesn't have to do with the money. It has to do with how you are influencing the world around you, and that is something I think it gets closer to the heart of why universities were created in the beginning hundreds of years ago. It was influenced the world to bring knowledge into the world, to change the world. And that's what we try to rank at academic influence dot Com, which is Troy, as you point out, is all about the academic influencers. So I guess we could have called our website academic Influencers dot com, but but that would be confusing. Um. In fact, my dad he always tries to go and find my website by typing an S at the end, and I'm like, Dad, no, it doesn't have an S. It's just academic influence dot com. So anyway, it's uh, it's it's different. You can see that it's as objective in some ways as a return on investment in r o I, but it doesn't just focus on the money. That's great, and I think that I think that makes a big difference in the way that higher ed marketers can start to do it because it's more of us. It's more of a storytelling. I mean, you've got data backing up the stories that we're already naturally telling as higher ed marketers. I mean, we're talking about the outcomes. We're talking about the environment, the experience of you know, especially traditional undergrad students, you know, the experience that they're gonna have on campus, how they're going to grow up in a lot of ways. But I love the fact that you're taking this big data and you're and you're kind of pouring that into these these influence rankings to be able to kind of quantify that a little bit more than just um, than than maybe what is out there elsewhere. Yeah, now we're very happy with how how well it worked. And of course, the same schools that are prestigious also attract influential professors, influential administrators, and churn out influential graduates. But because it's more of an objective thing, there's not this echo effect that the reason that presidents, provosts and deans of admissions right down the same top ten schools is why because they've read the previous year's US news and world reports. So it kind of ends up being an echo chamber and our our methods avoid that. I know there's another aspect of academic influence dot com as well that that...

...kind of goes into this is ranking analytics dot com. Tell me a little bit about that and how that works. Okay, well, Ranking analytics dot Com is something that our listeners can't go to and check out because they'll get there and it'll say log in and they won't be able to log in. Um. We are looking obviously for ways to help people. So if they do want to check out that website, they can of course contact us and we can give them access. That's where all of our algorithm and engine is based. So we use that engine UH in a very small capacity to rank universities, but that engine is so powerful it can rank movies and books and UH vacation destinations. You might think, why why would I want? Well, you know, if you want to take your family on an educational journey through Europe, you might want to know which tourist destinations are the most influential, so you can go and visit those you know. So, and it's and it's think tanks, influential, think takes, influential cities, influential songs, whatever, you want that has had influence, which of course has been deposited in Wikipedia, wiki data, in all the articles and journal magazines, everything, book chapters that have ever been published. So it's it's a really, really, really powerful engine. But like I said, you can't experience it unless you wanted to collaborate with our team. That's great. Well, I appreciate the opportunities to at least understand a little bit more about that as well as just just what a great resource academic influence dot com would be. And so I love that, and I would encourage all of our listeners to check out that website and see see a little bit more about their schools and how they're ranking. If we may ask at the end of each episode, we do ask our guests if there's an additional thought or idea that would be immediately implemented by a listener. If you have something to offer, we would love to hear it. Well. I think that since a lot of people listening to this are marketers for higher education, I think the thing to do is to go to our website and snoop around for different ways of slicing and dicing influence, so you can look for, let's say, you're you're trying to market for a particular university, UM you can look for their top alumni, but also alumni that may have flown under the radar UH and find those those people that are very influential but haven't yet shown up on the university's website. You can also look for ways of highlighting the way that particular university is being influential in certain areas. For example, we mentioned that you could take their influence and divide it by the amount of financial resources they have to get that list of demic stewardship that we talked about, But we've done that with other types of denominators. So, for example, small schools that are still generating a lot of influence get a different kind of influence that we've coined as concentrated influence. So if you look for if you're marketing FIRS small school, they may have a very high concentrated influence and you might think, well, what does that matter. Well, Hey, if I'm sending my kid to a university that's very gonna gonna have lots of influence, influential alumni, influential professors, influential future students, that's great. But if it's a huge university, how much is my child really going to interact with those influential people, how much are they going to get to rub shoulders with them? But if it's a smaller school, then there's much more opportunity for them to interact with those future influencers or past influencers, so that that concentrated influence can be good. And then the influence of a particular school within a type of university. We have the top influential liberal arts colleges, the top influential this that,...

...and the other college. So you can find ways to slice and dice these influence rankings to highlight what that school is doing. And I think that's a really quick thing you can do. You can go to our website, look at all the different kinds of rankings, get some ideas, and if you don't find what you're looking for, you can contact us and will help you craft something that will highlight the influence of your university. At Wake Forest, I was kind of tickled to see an advertisement for we are the only school in the world that has ten wins in men's football, men's basketball, and women's basketball all at the same time. Somebody figured that one out. I mean that's pretty good and it sounds good. So you know, if you can find something like that, it will help you as you market higher education. Thank you, And to be clear, that's at academic influence dot com. No r no s. That's right, academic influence dot com. Don't make the mistake that my dad usually makes. But you'll find it and you'll you'll see a lot of really great tools there that will help you as a marketer. But also if you have children that are looking to apply to college, it's it's really built for them to help them find the best fit. Because again, every student has their own ranking. We shouldn't just all bow down to US News and World Report. They are not going to give the answer that your student needs. Thank you. DR. If someone would like to contact you, what would the best way for them to reach out to you? Be well, there's certainly contact forms at our website, but an easy one to remember is just Jed my first name j E d at WFU Wake Forest University dot E du so just six letters j E d at WFU dot E d U or nine letters, I guess, and I'm happy to answer your Yeah, pretty short email, just and I'm happy to answer any questions you may have. It's a pretty short email address, though. Thank you for being a guest on the hygrid Marketer podcast and sharing this knowledge. I'm hoping that it does get out to the masses part. Do you have any closing comments you would like to make? Yeah, I think that really what what Jed's work and the work there at academic influence dot com is doing is so important. I think that there's, uh, it's almost become to the point now where I think a lot of parents and students um they either just kind of blindly follow everything, but I honestly think a lot of people are just starting to kind of tone it out, you know, because it's it's it seems like it's always the same every year, and it is based on what Jed said with the echo chambers, And I think that's why places like niche dot com and other ones are places where a lot of students are going. I love the fact that academic Influences another one of those tools that students can use to kind of start to understand a little bit more. I mean, you're gonna have different ways, different different sites are gonna, you know, rank things differently and have different ways of getting the data. But I love the I love the purity of the data from from from academic influence in the sense that they're pulling it from Wikipedia and some of these more influential types of things. I love the idea of of hearing him talk a little bit abou rankings and analytics, dot com and the idea that you know, a lot of our society and a lot of our culture is based on that idea of the influence that we have. I mean, you know, how influential has the Marvel comics been in our culture in the last ten or twenty years. And you know, I'm getting ready to do a presentation a few weeks and I've decided to name it. You know, I am Groot and we're going to talk about how how I am Groot and you know, represents the generation Z and and what what they're about. And you know, I couldn't do that without the influence of Marvel. And so I think there's ideas in that, with the idea with with with this, and I think that academic influence is a great place to go to kind of start looking at how that's being influenced. So thank you, Jed. I really appreciate the time today and thanks for having me. The High Rate Margaret podcast is sponsored by Kaylor's Solutions and Education marketing and branding agency and by Thing Patented, a marketing...

...execution company and provider of higher ED solutions. On behalf of my co host Bart Kaylor, I'm Troy Singer. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to the Higher ED Marketer. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you're listening with Apple Podcasts, we'd love for you to leave a quick rating of the show. Simply tap the number of stars do you think the podcast deserves. Until next time,.

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