Jonathan Henry, a vice president at the University of Maine at Augusta, is hoping that an email will arrive this month. He is also sort of dreading it.
The message, if it comes, will tell him that U.S. News & World Report has again ranked his university’s online programs among the nation’s best. History suggests the email will also prod the university toward paying U.S. News, through a licensing agent, thousands of dollars for the right to advertise its rankings.
For more than a year, U.S. News has been embroiled in another caustic dispute about the worthiness of college rankings — this time with dozens of law and medical schools vowing not to supply data to the publisher, saying that rankings sometimes unduly influence the priorities of universities.
But school records and interviews show that colleges nevertheless feed the rankings industry, collectively pouring millions of dollars into it.
Many lower-profile colleges are straining to curb enrollment declines and counter shrinking budgets. And any endorsement that might attract students, administrators say, is enticing.
Maine at Augusta spent $15,225 last year for the right to market U.S. News “badges” — handsome seals with U.S. News’s logo — commemorating three honors: the 61st-ranked online bachelor’s program for veterans, the 79th-ranked online bachelor’s in business and the 104th-ranked online bachelor’s.
Mr. Henry, who oversees the school’s enrollment management and marketing, said there was just too much of a risk of being outshined and out-marketed by competing schools that pay to flash their shiny badges.
“If we could ignore them, wouldn’t that be grand?” Mr. Henry said of U.S. News. “But you can’t ignore the leviathan that they are.”
Nor can colleges ignore how families evaluate schools. “The Amazonification of how we judge a product’s quality,” he said, has infiltrated higher education, as consumers and prospective students alike seek order from chaos.
The money flows from schools large and small.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney, which has about 6,000 students, bought a U.S. News “digital marketing license” for $8,500 in September. The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college, moved in August to spend $50,000 for the right to use its rankings online, in print and on television, among other places. In 2022, the University of Alabama shelled out $32,525 to promote its rankings in programs like engineering and nursing.
Critics believe that the payments, from schools of any size and wealth, enable and incentivize a ranking system they see as harmful.
“I still cannot believe that higher education has collectively paid them to skew what we do in higher education,” said Heather Gerken, the dean of Yale Law School, who helped lead the uprising among law and medical schools. The money “devoted to this unserious enterprise,” she said, could have been used to “transform lives,” perhaps through financial aid or the recruitment of low-income students.
U.S. News said its business of licensing its logo reflects its reputation. The rankings, U.S. News leaders said, help students and parents find clarity in a crowded, confusing college marketplace, and let quality schools break through more easily with prospects.
U.S. News is privately held and says little about its finances, which are fortified by revenues from other rankings — including hospitals, mutual funds, college savings accounts and diets. But Eric J. Gertler, the executive chairman of U.S. News, acknowledged in an interview that the publisher pulls in millions from universities looking to share in the allure of U.S. News’s credibility.
“This really came from a push from the community of wanting to associate themselves with our brand,” said Mr. Gertler, whose company began licensing digital badges in 2010, the same year it retired its print newsmagazine. According to U.S. News, “significantly less than half” of its revenue tied to education rankings comes from licensing badges.
U.S. News says its education website attracts at least 100 million users a year, and a survey that Art & Science Group, a higher education consultancy, published in September showed that 58 percent of college-bound high school seniors “considered” rankings to some degree. Such data has reinforced the belief among many college administrators that it would be perilous to pretend that the ranking industry simply did not exist.
When Mr. Henry sits in his office a few miles from Maine’s State House and surveys New England’s college landscape, he sees plenty of schools jockeying for students. And, like many of his colleagues across the country, he fears that prospective students will assume his school is of lower quality if it does not promote its rankings with the glitz of eye-catching badges.”
At the same time, the opportunities for schools to make the cut are growing as publishers expand their reach (and potential profits) by creating new accolades.
U.S. News offers badges in more than 130 categories for graduate programs, including paleontology, petroleum engineering and doctorate of nursing practice programs in acute adult gerontology. There are at least 85 categories for undergraduate programs, including new ones for economics and psychology degrees.
All told, if every school purchased every available badge — from just the traditional undergraduate rankings that were published in September — U.S. News would sell more than 4,400.
The best undergraduate nursing programs? About 400 schools could buy a badge.
Mr. Gertler, who said editors develop new categories by considering whether they would attract sufficient interest, defended the nursing category’s size, which he suggested was partly a response to campus feedback.
“I certainly know,” he said, “that we ended up ranking more because more nursing schools wanted to be paid attention to.”
Although U.S. News remains the industry’s juggernaut, it is not the only ranking service that sees schools as potential clients. The Wall Street Journal and its partners, for example, sell kits to colleges with “prepared graphics and artwork which support the immediate usage of the award in your marketing and communication campaigns.” (The New York Times does not rank colleges, but the Times Company licenses some intellectual property for products like best-selling or notable books and favorites of its product recommendation website, Wirecutter.)
Todd Gottula, who leads marketing efforts at Nebraska-Kearney, estimated that he receives a solicitation from a rankings purveyor just about weekly.
“Our university doesn’t take many of those very seriously,” he said. Although Mr. Gottula said it was difficult to trace how the use of U.S. News’s logo affects a metric like enrollment, he said the university viewed the publisher as “the industry standard” and believed that being able to use its emblem strengthened the university’s credibility.
He said, though, that the price tag gave him “heartburn.”
College rankings have come in for intense criticism in recent years after arguments over priorities, publisher errors and flawed data submissions from universities. Some of their fiercest critics nevertheless begrudgingly marvel at the business model.
“I understand why it makes money, but I think it has significant negative consequences,” said Daniel Diermeier, Vanderbilt University’s chancellor, who has condemned the rebuilt formula that U.S. News used for its most recent undergraduate rankings and dropped his school five spots to No. 18.
The chancellor said last month that although Vanderbilt had sometimes purchased the rights to U.S. News badges in the past, he did not expect that to continue.
A range of other universities that have licensed U.S. News materials in recent years, including the Citadel and Alabama, declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.
U.S. News insisted its algorithm does not consider whether the publisher has a business relationship with a school, and contracts showed that U.S. News tells schools that licensing badges “will in no way affect, positively or negatively, the rankings or ratings.” Yale Law, for instance, has not licensed badges from U.S. News but has held a share of the top spot for decades. Even after Dean Gerken led a ranking boycott, the school remained No. 1.
But leaders at schools like Yale acknowledge that they have less need to advertise a ranking than most institutions. Many colleges are far closer to the situation at University of Maine at Augusta: eager for students, under pressure, pursuing any edge.
“I always feel like you’re closing one eye when you’re writing that check, because you feel like you’re drinking from that Kool-Aid,” Mr. Henry said. “But every year, we’ve said, ‘This is still important.’”
And so he will hope, again, for the email.