Flowers feed bees, and industries feed other industries. Higher education is no exception. Case in point: Colleges support the thriving rankings industry, led by U.S. News & World Report. In turn, this annual ratings ritual supports what one might call the tout industry, which supports colleges by helping them promote their rankings—for a fee.
Colleges have long paid for the right to use the official U.S. News “badge” in print materials. This year, for the first time, colleges must also pay to reproduce the copyrighted image online. The badge includes the magazine’s logo, the phrase “Best Colleges 2011,” and the name of one of 13 categories, such as “Liberal Arts Colleges” or “Up-and-Comers.”
Previously, college officials could download the images for free from the U.S. News Web site. Over the years, some institutions have used the logo online despite receiving relatively low scores in the rankings. Now, only colleges that rank in the top half of a given category may obtain a badge from U.S. News. First they must pay a licensing fee to a third-party company that has an exclusive contract with the magazine.
“More and more of our business is digital now, and we realized that we wanted to have some control over this thing,” says Brian Kelly, the magazine’s editor. “We wanted to give institutions the opportunity to use our brand, but we want them to do it in a responsible way.”
Prior to the release of rankings, on Tuesday, the magazine sent colleges an e-mail that described the new badge “distribution and licensing” process. The message included a link to the Web site of Wright’s Media, a company in Texas that specializes in reprints. “Congratulations on being recognized as one of [the] Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report,” says a message on the company’s site. “Take advantage of our proven marketing tools to enhance your current marketing campaign.”
Wright’s Media controls and monitors how institutions may use the copyrighted badges. Colleges that wish to slap the logo on Web pages or brochures (or anywhere else) must sign a licensing agreement with the company, which verifies their eligibility. The company also sells framed reprints, plaques, and posters (in black or cherry), as well as lapel pins bearing the “Best Colleges” logo. You know, the kind of thing that a president might wear to a fundraiser.
“It’s a great way to leverage products and services,” says Nicholas Iademarco, director of sales at Wright’s Media.
On Monday, Mr. Iademarco said the phones in his office had been ringing all afternoon as colleges called to place their orders. He laughed, though, when I asked him about the pricing structure, and he refused to send me a rate sheet. “That information is available to the people who need it,” he said.
A college media-relations director was happy to send me the price list on Tuesday, however. It reveals that costs vary depending on how—and where—colleges intend to use the badge. According to the list, colleges may use the image on their Web sites for 12 months for $700. Unlimited electronic use of the badge (including e-mail blasts and newsletters) costs $3,500. Unlimited print use (including advertisements, posters, and banners) runs $5,750.
Unlimited use of any kind? That will cost you $8,200. Colleges may also order customized reprints, in two- or four-page layouts, for between $3,479 and $9,130. A customized “e-print” layout, with a badge, runs $3,000.
Hundreds of colleges a year buy some kind of reprint from U.S. News, according to Mr. Kelly. He says that the magazine splits the profits 50-50, or thereabouts, with Wright’s Media. “It’s a nice little business for us, but it’s not a huge revenue generator,” he says.
The arrangement is hardly unique. The walls of American restaurants, for instance, are loaded with framed reprints of favorable reviews published in magazines and newspapers. In many cases, publications and reprint companies alike make a few nickels on those items along the way. (My editors tell me that The Chronicle does not charge colleges for the use of our Great Colleges to Work For logo, but we do generate some revenue each year from reprints, which are handled by a third party.)
This year, some college officials were taken aback by the news that the U.S. News badges were no longer free for online use. A couple of them told me that their institutions would never pay to put the image on their Web sites. One said he had opted to copy-and-paste a U.S. News logo he found via Google, which is one way around the whole licensing thing.
Others were undeterred by the new arrangement. On Monday, Ann Marie Varga secured the Web-only rights to the badge after learning that her employer, Rollins College, had topped the U.S. News list of top regional universities in the South for the sixth straight year. The image appears in a news release published on the college’s Web site.
“From a graphical standpoint, it’s a nice visual,” says Ms. Varga, the college’s assistant vice president for public relations and community affairs. “And the cost wasn’t significant.”
The college plans to continue mentioning its U.S. News rating in other media—viewbooks, e-newsletters, and a billboard near Orlando International Airport—without using the badge. Those communications are all testaments to the peculiar power of rankings.
For all the criticism of U.S. News in higher education, the fact is that plenty of colleges use those ratings to bolster their messaging. For better or worse, it’s how the marketing ecosystem works.