Parents and students assessing tertiary institution options undertake a significant challenge. When their consideration includes foreign institutions, the process becomes significantly more challenging. A foreign degree may lead to life-changing opportunities and often drastically higher expenses.
These searchers may rely on the personal experience of family members and friends, augmented by institutional reputation assessments offered by the major ranking systems: QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong and Times Higher Education. Those considering US institutions are also likely to consult US News’ Best Colleges.
Family and friends consultation, which is based on trust, is second only to first-hand experience. The responders’ familiarity with the unique characteristics of both the prospective student and the institution(s) under consideration may be helpful in isolating the best fit.
Reliance on institutional reputation is another matter. At best, parents and students can only infer the relationship between the major ranking systems’ heavily weighted research, publication and peer reputation metrics and the possible institutional fit in relation to a specific student.
The major ranking systems simply do not provide the relevant information that consumers need in their search for the best fit and return on their investment.
This decades-long void of relevant consumer information has started to attract entrepreneurial responses. Entrepreneurs may be defined as individuals who identify unmet consumer needs and respond by providing an appropriate good or service with the hope of making a profit.
Two new responses
Two recent entrepreneurial responses, The Alumni Factor and College Miner may provide discerning parents and students with more relevant information in their selection process than their traditional reliance on the major ranking systems.
The Alumni Factor is based on the simple premise that those who have earned an institution’s degree are the best sources of pertinent information about an institution’s influence on its students.
Its nascent database currently includes fewer than 200 US institutions, both well known and lesser known. It claims to provide institutional assessments-based survey data gathered from at least 200 alumni per institution.
The survey is said to include an array of 15 objective and subjective factors that the publisher proposes gauge institutional impact on graduates. These factors include intellectual and social development, friendships made, overall happiness of graduates and, perhaps most important, whether they would recommend their alma mater.
The percentage of graduates earning over $150,000 might suggest the possible return on investment depending on the major pursued.
The Alumni Factor’s monthly subscription fee is $3.95 or $5.95, depending on the level of access. The publisher claims its interactive system will allow users to generate their own personalised rankings.
Sliding scales allow users to give various factors more or less weight. For example, some users may relate their tuition preferences to possible financial outcomes. Others may choose to emphasise happiness and care less about expenses and possible returns on their investment.
College Miner operates on a different business plan, providing multiple institutional comparisons at no charge. Users may simultaneously compare up to three institutions at a time, across an array of variables. Users may repeat comparisons without an apparent limit.
When compared to the major ranking systems, the number of consumer-relevant variables is impressive. They include admissions requirements, retention rates, and four-, five- and six-year graduation rates. Tuition fees, board, room and aggregate cost data are also included.
Comparative institutional data are displayed in tabular and graph format. Accompanying maps present the proximity of the schools being compared.
A significant departure
Both of these entrepreneurial enterprises are a significant departure from the major ranking systems’ presentation of fixed ranking tables.
While the majors are the products of long established and well capitalised corporations or the beneficiary of government backing, these two upstart publishers are responding to a long overlooked commercial opportunity within the US market and beyond.
In their separate ways, they are responding to consumers most in need of relevant comparable data to make more informed selection decisions.
Neither publisher’s database comes anything close to a representative sample of America’s 4,000 plus tertiary institutions at this time. Many institutions will, however, be familiar to an international audience.
More importantly, the well-known and the many schools that are repeatedly ignored by the major ranking systems’ input and peer reputation metrics are available for individualised comparisons. When different metrics are employed, the major ranking systems’ perennial high flyers do not always dominate comparisons.
With both upstarts allowing users to manipulate the data and produce individualised rankings, the major ranking systems’ high flyers pale. Hence, the upstarts represent a middle ground between the trusted family and friend source, and the fixed league tables.
Although the services are primarily designed for the US market, international parents and students may want to add one or both of these additional sources to their search regime. The cost is relatively low and the potential for more accurately discerning better student and institutional fits from afar is great.
Assuming these upstarts add more US institutions to their databases, their consumer utility will surely grow. Should their model be globally expanded, the major ranking systems’ traditional dominance could erode to the point of irrelevance.
* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean at SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters