Even the most consulted college rankings are controversial. Critics rightly grouse that they are often cranked out by click-hungry editors who make arbitrary judgments about what to weigh and what to discount about an education. More often than not, they measure things that have little, if anything, to do with the essential essence of a quality educational experience.
But rankings attract eyeballs—and plenty of them. People are endlessly obsessed with the pecking order of things, and that opens the door to charlatans who have figured out how to game Google and make money by funneling non-suspecting prospective students to schools for lead generation and affiliate marketing deals.
These shadowy players on the Internet have figured out how to gain high listings in Google search and entice major online education providers, who help design run and market virtual programs, into the game. It’s certainly not a new ploy. A few years back, Poets&Quants revealed that a goat farmer was behind one of these fake rankings sites (see Why A Goat Farmer Ranks Business Schools).
If you’re looking for exhibit A in today’s fake rankings game, however, look no further than CollegeChoice.net. Its website is a wasteland of useless content and fraudulent rankings. At best, it’s valueless entertainment. At worst, it’s highly misleading and deceptive information that can cause naive college applicants to make costly and disastrous choices.
A DUBIOUS CLAIM: ‘THE LEADING AUTHORITY ON COLLEGE RANKINGS AND RESOURCES’
Though it claims to be “the leading authority on college rankings and resources,” it has neither the prestige or influence of U.S. News & World Report, which has been heavily criticized by academics and observers alike for its highly flawed lists of the best colleges, business, law, and medical schools. CollegeChoice claims that while it is “happy to work with any college to promote a ranking that they have appeared on, we never accept payment to bump up a college or change ranking.”
On its website, CollegeChoice does not reveal where it is located, though it is based in Eugene, Ore. Not one of the six editorial staffers credited with working on the site has LinkedIn profiles. One top business school official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says “I’m convinced that College Choice’s staff are ghosts for a reason,” one top business school official, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Poets&Quants. “They aren’t real. None have social profiles or any web presences whatsoever which makes it highly suspicious for transparency.”
Yet, the site’s online presence is formidable thanks to Google and the endless number of news releases it regularly pushes out via PRNewswire. Repeated voice messages and emails to CollegeChoice and its managing editor, Alyssa Koh, were unreturned. CollegeChoice, by the way, is a subsidiary site run by a much larger parent, Higher Education.com, a prominent 2U university partner. But there is no indication at all that CollegeChoice is linked with HigherEducation nor does it list the website’s post office box in Eugene, OR, as a location as it does with other locations for company subsidiaries.
So it is not entirely surprising, then, that among CollegeChoice’s major advertising supporters is none other than 2U Inc., the publicly traded online education provider that has partnered with some of the best universities in the U.S. and spent more than $221 million on marketing and sales alone last year to largely reach and recruit prospective students for its online programs. That massive sum represented 54% of the company’s total revenues in 2018.
A VAGUE AND MISLEADING METHODOLOGY TO RANK ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS
The first sign that its rankings lack credibility lays not merely in the organization’s results, but most importantly in its incredibly vague explanation of how it ranks schools. Consider, for example, CollegeChoice’s ranking of the best online MBA programs. Here is the way CollegeChoice describes its methodology for rating online MBAs:
At College Choice, our sources for data and information come from a few different places. First, we rate our online MBA programs based on their actual costs (taking into account hidden fees that often go unadvertised by universities, such as technical support fees or operating platform costs).
Additionally, we base our rankings on information published by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. This organization conducted a nationwide survey, polling students of all stripes on financial aid offerings, the overall cost of going to school, and the job-placement rates of post-college students. Those factors are integrated into data from other sources, which are also available publicly, like U.S. News & World Report, the National Center for Education Statistics, and PayScale.com.
At no point does the website note how much weight it puts on any of the few variables it claims to use. If, in fact, CollegeChoice weighs a program’s costs, that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of an educational experience. The Higher Education Research Institute, moreover, only does surveys of undergraduate students and faculty—not graduate education—so its findings would be useless in any assessment of an online MBA. Then, CollegeChoice claims to add other unspecified data from U.S. News, the National Center for Education Statistics, and Payscale, without informing users what data that is or how much weight it is given.
Elsewhere on its site, CollegeChoice claims to apply a 20% weight to each of five criteria: quality, reputation, affordability, value, and satisfaction. It’s left entirely unclear, however, if any of this matters to its online MBA ranking. Just take a single factor: quality. CollegeChoice asserts that this metric is based on an unspecified mix of data including “graduation rates, strength of faculty, and curriculum” from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Problem is, that database only includes data from undergraduate schools—not graduate programs nor online offerings.
A BUSINESS MODEL THAT FUNNELS PROSPECTIVE STUDENT LEADS TO SCHOOLS
This intellectually dishonest approach results in a ranking that seems to mix legitimate high performing business schools with others that really have no justifiable reason to be ranked alongside some of the best programs. But the inclusion of schools, already ranked high on other more closely followed rankings, lends some false legitimacy to the CollegeChoice list.
Before we get to the actual ranking of the top 50 online MBA programs, however, there is a list of four prominently featured “recommended schools” that reveals the site’s business model: lead generation. These appear even before the vague description of the methodology. Three of the four business schools—the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School, the University of Denver, and Syracuse University—are all 2U partners. The final “recommended” school is Johns Hopkins University. The editorial on each of these four schools boasts a “visit site” button that sends users directly into a form that a reader has to fill out to get more information.
2U says that it places advertising on sites that meet the expectations of their business school partners and aligns with their brands. “We deploy targeted online advertising campaigns across a range of web properties that generate high-quality potential students for our university partners,” says Jemila Campbell, a spokesperson for 2U, in a statement provided to Poets&Quants. “We strive to advertise our partners’ programs on web properties that meet their expectations and align with their brands. 2U doesn’t control or endorse the editorial content, including the ranking methodologies, on these websites.”