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Five Ways The New U.S. News Ranking Methodology Impact Your Strategy

Authors: Kelly S. Moody, Mo Cotton Kelly, Julie Knight, Ph.D., Colin Hennessy, Ed.D, Ashley Budd, Adrian Matthys, and Brittany Shaff


Graduates tossing caps

U.S. News & World Report, the global leader in education rankings, announced on May 19, 2023, the distribution of surveys for the 2024 Best Colleges rankings.


In addition to survey distribution, U.S. News is implementing several updates to its methodology for the 2024 rankings. These updates emphasize student outcomes more and reduce the influence of factors like selectivity, alumni giving, and endowment size. By doing so, U.S. News seeks to create rankings that better reflect the value of a college education and assist students in making informed decisions about their college choices.


Four notable takeaways from the 2024 U.S. News methodology changes:


1. Increased Weight on Key Factors:

  • Factors such as graduation rate, median alumni earnings, and student loan debt will carry more weight in the rankings. U.S. News recognizes these indicators' importance in assessing a college education's value.

2. Decreased Weight on Selectivity and Endowment Size:

  • Factors such as acceptance rate and endowment size will have reduced weight in the rankings. This shift reflects U.S. News' commitment to evaluating colleges based on outcomes and overall value rather than solely on their popularity or financial resources.

3. Introduction of a New Factor: Diversity:

  • U.S. News will introduce diversity as a new factor in the rankings. This recognizes the significance of creating inclusive environments and the importance of representation within college communities.

4. Removal of Certain Factors:

  • Alumni giving, faculty with a terminal degree, and class size/high school standing will no longer be included as ranking indicators. However, school profiles and comparison tools will still incorporate these factors to provide additional institutional context.

We are confronted with a pivotal question: How can we adapt, progress, and generate greater impact? We posed this exact question to each of our esteemed experts.

For Students

The updated methodology means focusing on graduation rate, median earnings of alumni, and student loan debt when making college decisions.


Kelly S. Moody, Vice President Institutional Advancement Teachers College, Columbia University: These factors are more indicative of the value of a college education than selectivity or endowment size, but they still fall short of distinguishing whether and how a college education results in greater outcomes than simply acquiring badges for skills competencies.


For Institutions


Institutions must prioritize improving graduation rates, alumni earnings, student diversity, and managing student loan debt to enhance their rankings. This can be achieved through increased support services, skills-focused education, financial aid initiatives, and efforts to control tuition costs.


Kelly S. Moody: These efforts, especially the diversity efforts, will be challenging given the current political climate in which colleges and universities operate. But research in so many sectors has shown that businesses, government, and our society as a whole are stronger when centered on the multitude of voices represented among our citizenry and residents.


Colin Hennessy Ed.D., Vice President Alumni, and Donor Engagement the University of Iowa: I am overjoyed that U.S. News will no longer value undergraduate alumni giving as a primary barometer for collegiate rankings. The increased focus on diversity will help elevate DEI's importance on campuses without forcing institutions with more finite resources to make challenging decisions to chase alumni participation versus investing in programs that have longer and far-reaching impact on other metrics such as first-year retention. Furthermore, for colleges and universities where DEI efforts are under attack, having this as a key metric for U.S. News may empower institutions to continue investing in DEI.


Jeff Neal, Assistant Vice President, Digital Engagement, Annual Giving & Analytics Loyola University Chicago: This is a phenomenal - and long overdue - decision to remove alumni participation from the collegiate rankings. There are so many ways alumni give back to their institutions that were largely otherwise unrecognized and, therefore, undervalued. In conjunction with some of the other moves, it inadvertently negatively affected schools that graduated more first-generation students and those in traditionally lower-paying fields. The move to focus on DEI, graduation rates, and managing student loan debt is essential for what today’s prospective students are looking for in their college decision process. For us at Loyola University Chicago, this also aligns very well with our mission and values as an institution.


For Development/Advancement


Kelly S. Moody: Teams should adapt their strategies to align with the new methodology that seeks to include donors of all backgrounds and lived experiences who support the institution's mission over their lifetime.


Jeff Neal: To pull from the old Peter Drucker quote, “What gets measured gets managed.” Therefore, while participation was a metric for rankings, many universities did whatever they could in specific campaigns (not all) to boost that number. Rarely was this done in good fundraising practice of cultivating meaningful donors who will drive impact and sustain future success for the schools; instead, it was transactional. This change by U.S. News will allow annual giving programs to truly focus on growing philanthropic support in a way that will develop pipelines and create a more consistent, sustainable model.


Mo Cotton Kelly, Senior Vice President for Stakeholder Engagement and Chief Operating Officer, the University of Connecticut Foundation: This decision will finally allow Advancement shops to develop a holistic approach to engagement and fundraising. Imagine a place where internal departments are not put into tense situations with their colleagues to achieve a metric that no one believes showcases alumni affinity.


Brittany Shaff, Founder, and CEO of Shaff Fundraising Group: For nearly two decades, overall participation and, specifically, alumni giving have been volatile. In such time we have seen a rise of technologies that are aimed to help grow participation, annual strategies like incentives and premiums (hello socks, beanies, and even university-branded Legos), and broader solicitation strategies like Giving Days, and reunion giving models, all aimed to acquire donors at any giving level. While participation-focused initiatives may diminish, personalized pipeline strategies tailored to donor profiles can drive more significant donor acquisition, retention, and qualification efforts and support a faster major gift pipeline.


Five Ways The New U.S. News Methodology Impacts Your Development Strategy.


1. Should participation strategies be retained but refocused?
  • Adrian Matthys, Assistant Vice President of Annual Giving, Oklahoma State University Foundation: Yes. The shift in measurement metrics for this particular ranking allows our teams to re-focus on actual, long-term engagement strategies for all constituencies instead of the transactional giving strategies of acquiring and retaining primarily alumni donors from one twelve-month period to the next. With less focus on the alumni participation metric, we can focus more on building cultures of philanthropy among a wide variety of donors and potential donors (alumni, parents, students, and friends of our institutions), which will bear increasing long-term fruit in the form of more sustainable and robust donor pipelines. This shift allows our teams to meet donors where they are. Some will remain transactional donors who respond to spirit or premium-based appeals. Still, others can and will be converted to more thoughtful cause-based engagement and giving outreach at our schools, forging lifelong philanthropic connections in the same vein as our colleagues in traditional nonprofits.


  • Brittany Shaff: The broad participation strategy should be replaced with a personalized participation strategy. This strategy utilizes personalized donor and engagement journeys, ask arrays based on the donor or prospective donor profile, and marketing and communications journeys. While this may mean that you are not soliciting everyone in your database at the same time, it provides larger donor acquisition, retention, and qualification efforts and, a faster pipeline for major gifts.


  • Jeff Neal: Yes, it is still an excellent indicator of the overall health of your alumni base’s philanthropic intent. The metrics should be refocused not only to begin benchmarking only for years after this decision was made but also to increase the focus on pipeline development, gift band upgrading, and acquisition. Overall, I prefer a metric of total donor base as compared to participation. This shows a more accurate view of support, including non-alumni parents, university friends, athletics, etc. Their impact matters just as much and should be tracked accordingly.

2. Will the methodology change impact unrestricted and restricted giving?
  • Adrian Matthys: Decreased focus on “alumni participation” will allow our teams to engage our donors and potential about the impact of collective philanthropy beyond transformational/major/principal giving (e.x. providing engagement and giving opportunities around the impact of 250 $100 gifts on student food insecurity, student mental health services, student career services, tutoring services, etc.) as well as why unrestricted giving is essential to university operations. We should educate the individual donors who fall under our respective major gift thresholds about the importance of restricted and unrestricted giving in ways beyond the old view of “a participation gift will increase our college ranking.” This will build trust among our annual donor populations that their philanthropic dollars are being used wisely for both purposes (restricted and unrestricted) by increasing transparency around how and why funds are needed to support current students.


  • Brittany Shaff: As most of the ranking methodology is now tied to student outcomes (e.g., diversity, alumni median salary, graduation rate, student loan debt), there is now more than ever a direct correlation to philanthropy supporting student experience and scholarship. While overall participation might continue declining, the likelihood of rising unrestricted and restricted scholarship giving rising also holds.


3. How will the methodology change impact engagement strategy?
  • Mo Cotton Kelly: Volunteerism will now be showcased across institutions. We can ask our colleagues for their help in identifying alumni who are already volunteering and engaged within the various offices and identifying new ways to get alumni to volunteer. If this is a University priority, imagine how much better aligned all of our work would be.


  • Kelly S. Moody: Develop engagement strategies that recognize the myriad phases of alumni during their lifespan and celebrate their contributions of time and talent in the early years while alumni are paying down large debts, starting families, and saving for their futures. CASE has adopted this approach with its alumni engagement reporting.


  • Ashley Budd, Director of Marketing Operations, Cornell University: Participation strategy should now be embedded in an overall constituent engagement where annual giving is one way to connect.


  • Adrian Matthys: Moving away from the hyper-focus on transactional “alumni participation” giving will allow us to direct more resources to actual engagement strategies with all constituencies, building robust and sustainable cultures of philanthropy at our institutions for the long term. Our teams can still focus on the “school spirit/pride” aspect of transactional gifts. However, we should also be prepared to engage with our donors on the collective impact annual gifts have on student outcomes above and beyond the primarily “ask-focused” structure of our annual giving development teams. Directing a lens towards the “why” of an engagement-focused, culture-building strategy can serve to be more philanthropically fulfilling to donors and build an invested recurring base for our institutions. An engagement-focused annual giving strategy for donors at the top of the funnel stands to develop lasting relationships with our alumni (and all donor constituencies) that broaden and deepen our pools of major, planned, and principal gift prospects in the long run.

4. Do you foresee a more significant partnership with Academic and Student Life?
  • Jeff Neal: Yes. Many of these new metrics can be driven by advancement teams but will be incredibly important to prospective students. Working hand-in-hand with those departments to better understand what the institution is currently doing to set students up for success after graduation while making them feel like a welcomed part of the community as a student will help drive strategy on the advancement side.

  • Adrian Matthys: When we look at the absolute explosion of crowdfunding and days of giving activities in the higher education development space, there is no question that our donors are passionate about giving towards areas that directly impact students’ daily needs and enrichment. Giving to Student Life, Student Affairs, and Academic Assistance has consistently skyrocketed among top-of-the-funnel donors over the past handful of years, in large part because our alumni donors are passionate about seeing current students succeed and participate in activities they were also a part of while attending their alma mater. Additionally, many of the memories made by alumni while attending our institutions fall under the umbrella of Student Life or Student Affairs. Intermural/recreational sports, student clubs, writing centers, tutoring sessions, study abroad programs, and the like are often what shaped our alumni as citizens of the world and still stimulate fond memories among them. These programs also do not typically get the same level of transformational philanthropic support as other areas of our institutions, illustrating how a collective of small gifts can have a great impact. Academic and Student Life programming serves to be a welcoming front porch into our philanthropy community for first-time and annual donors because of the personal and nostalgic connection back to any given alum’s student experience. Providing alumni the opportunity to give back to the areas that impacted and shaped them the most is critical to laying the foundations for a long-term engagement strategy and a robust culture of philanthropy.

5. How does the change impact data enrichment, tracking, and reporting?
  • Julie Knight, Ph.D., Executive Director of Annual Giving, Carnegie Mellon University: The change provides us with the opportunity to expand the advanced analysis, tracking, and data hygiene practices to all constituent types. The time-intensive work institutions have historically completed to define and identify their alumni base, improve data integrity to reach those alumni and report on alumni giving is preserved with the change in the U.S. News methodology. With a deeper level of personalization in communications to all constituents, the attention devoted to maintaining alumni records will be applied to all constituent records. This includes consolidating data and adding new data from all your platforms into your CRM for a 360-degree view of your constituent’s interaction with your institution. Additional data to consider based on the U.S. News changes could include average wage, employer details, and student loan debt estimate (for alumni). This change also presents a unique opportunity for data improvements across the entire institution, removing concerns that a change in one area will negatively impact the institution’s denominator. Reporting will continue to adapt with more automation and coordinated reports supporting multiple teams' goals, like annual giving, prospect research, and frontline fundraisers. While an engagement score may not replace the alumni participation percentage in the long term, it’s an important metric, providing a holistic view of the constituent’s relationship with the institution. With support from internal partners, the 360-degree view of your constituent’s interaction with your institution can be turned into an engagement score. This will be increasingly important in moving engaged constituents to donors.

Final Thoughts & Recommendations:

The U.S. News & World Report updated college rankings methodology represents a positive development for students, encouraging a focus on outcomes and value. Institutions and advancement/development teams must respond strategically to these changes to meet the evolving needs and expectations of students, alumni, and donors.


Kelly S. Moody: I recommend that U.S. News & World Report consider further changes to track graduates' success in terms of upward mobility and earnings longitudinally. Adding indicators that illustrate whether and how a college degree is a better investment than badges that demonstrate skills competencies. Without this data, should colleges and universities even exist going forward?


Jeff Neal: I agree and second Kelly’s statement above.


Mo Cotton Kelly: While we are celebrating the death of an antiquated metric, I hope we all are thinking about how we calculate engagement globally. It will still vary, but I hope we can lean into CASE’s alumni metrics reporting. The buckets of communications, events, volunteering, and giving will still need some guardrails so that we don’t end up with another antiquated metric.


Advancement teams must adapt their strategies to align with the new methodology. While some may still focus on participation, institutions will likely start focusing on another term, Pipeline. The new methodology provides a new avenue for us to ensure that engagement and giving strategies aren’t focused on the count but rather on the impact of those efforts and are a positive step towards creating rankings that are more reflective of the value of a college education.

 

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Shaff Fundraising Group is a consulting firm specializing in fundraising, marketing, and analytics. We take pride in our independent approach, free from technology affiliations with SaaS and other companies. This allows us to provide objective, solutions-oriented support to our client partners and the wider fundraising and engagement community.

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