This story has been updated.
These weren’t exactly the results Pam Horne, the dean of admissions at Purdue University, was expecting: A company billing itself as “the leading provider of research and analysis in higher education” had ranked the best engineering schools in Indiana, and Purdue didn’t even make the top 10 in the state.
But an unaccredited, for-profit school was right up there at No. 3, she said.
Not only that, but the Web site offered to help prospective students get more information about schools such as Purdue, displaying the university logo, statistics about performance, and links to request more information, a tour, or apply.
“The Web site is using trademarked word marks and logos without permission,” she said, and “promising transactions with institutions they can’t deliver on…. We do not have a relationship with them to act like that on our behalf.”
And, she said, the methodology used for rankings is “quite suspect.”
CollegeCompare.com has removed the logos from organizations and institutions that have requested it, said Larry Fitzgerald, vice president for communications for the company. He said company executives are aware that some school officials were upset, but that they are making changes. The site can be an invaluable resource for students looking for the right college, he said. “We’re received some really great feedback thus far, and success stories.”
The company uses its own software to rank the nearly 2,100 colleges on the site, with students, parents alumni and others able to add ratings. Both colleges that pay for “premium” placement on the site, in effect an ad, and those listed for free are included in their rankings, Fitzgerald said.
“As we move forward, the rankings will become more and more accurate… one has to take into consideration that we are a new site. We’re still compiling data.”
On a public listserv run by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, there was a heated exchange between some university officials – who wrote about how prospective students are the lifeblood of any school — and its president Victor Spina, who defended the company.
One admissions official puckishly downloaded a “Best College” logo from the site and joked that it proved they had expertise in pancakes, waffles and syrup.
Joyce Smith, the CEO of NACAC, the college admission group, asked the site to remove the NACAC logo because it was not a partner. She doesn’t know what the business model is for CollegeCompare.com, but she offered a blanket warning to families looking at colleges: “Be attentive to what’s promoted as free.”
There’s a growing industry of companies finding and selling information about prospective students to colleges, she said. Many schools –especially in states where the population of teenagers is stable or shrinking — feel pressure to recruit.
“When you’re online you don’t know what’s behind the name,” she said. “We just want to protect 16- to 17-year-olds who may be relaying a lot of information about themselves unknowingly online.”
Prospective applicants can create a profile on the site, but Fitzgerald said the company does not sell identifying information about students. “What we did in capturing student information previously was only a test. Unfortunately we came under some scrutiny for it .. .but you have to go live, run a real-world test,” with an online company, he said.
Fitzgerald said the site went live last summer but that company officials consider 2015 its true “birth.”
He described their goal as creating a single site from which prospective students and parents can center their college search, learning more about schools, financial aid, rankings, and applications.
In the last few days, some college officials have asked that their institutions be removed from the site. Someone looking quickly at the site would assume that it was representing the universities, said Heath Einstein, director of freshman admission at Texas Christian University. “If you pull up TCU, you see in large font our main office line, and it says, ‘Talk to a representative.’ That would make one believe they are serving as an agent for the university, when they never asked for such permission.”
Einstein said Spina had sent him an e-mail with a price structure for featuring schools on the site last fall, and that he had declined. Now he’s worried that students will request information and never hear back from his school. “It reflects very poorly on us,” if that happens.
When Pam Horne saw an e-mail asking Purdue to partner with a college-rankings site earlier this winter, she didn’t think much about it.
“It’s a crowded marketplace. There are a lot of pop-ups trying to make a dollar off the college admissions process,” she said.
Purdue officials quickly declined to work with CollegeCompare.com, which offers to help students and parents sort through the maze of college options, and to boost universities’ visibility, she said; Horne encourages prospective students and parents to talk with their high-school counselors and look to established sites such as those at the College Board and College Navigator.
But when Horne, associate vice president for enrollment management, saw colleagues at other universities asking if their professional organization had really partnered with CollegeCompare.com – as the company’s site suggested, complete with the NACAC logo – she looked into it a little.
That’s when she saw the rankings.
She found what she considered other troubling signs too: The site offers editing to ensure a guaranteed “100% error-free” admissions essay, and tells students, “Your review effects our rankings.” (High-school English teachers everywhere are cringing.)
The University of Maryland didn’t make it into the top 10 colleges in the state.
And when a school official at DePaul University tried to arrange an interview online at the site, he was worried that prospective students would mistakenly think they had reached out to his school to no avail.
Some school officials noted that Spina also appeared to be running a site ranking luxury goods claiming to be “the authoritative guide to affluent living.” There’s nothing wrong with running a business, Einstein said, but he hoped students would look to educators for advice in such an important decision.
Fitzgerald said he wasn’t sure whether Spina was also working on or had worked with a luxury-goods company. He said Collegecompare.com’s staff has “extensive backgrounds with technology and Internet marketing.”
Some college officials bristled at the site’s claim to be a definitive ranking. “Identified by who or what, exactly? That’s not made clear at any point,” one admissions officer wrote. “It appears that this site is being used to gather student information for, at best, unclear purposes, using the good reputations and brands of colleges and universities to do so. Assuming the absolute best, that the intent is to route that information to the colleges and universities, it appears to be failing.”
“The more I kept looking at it, the more it just seemed outrageous,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. He questioned the site’s use of the university’s logo, and asked Spina to stop.
Fitzgerald said the company has apologized to NACAC and would remove logos when requested. And he said students who ask for more information, a tour or an application for a college now will be advised to contact the school directly.
“We took all the feedback into consideration,” and made some changes, he said, “realizing we can’t make everyone happy. But we’re not here to upset the industry, by any means.” He said the company is thrilled with the traffic to the site, believe it’s offering families a valuable resource in making an important decision, and that over time, it will become the authoritative source of information about colleges.
Over the last several days, Horne said, she has e-mailed Spina to ask for more information. She also asked him to take down the page that offers to link prospective students to get more information, a tour, or apply for admission to Purdue.
No response, yet.
“Those buttons go nowhere,” she said. “As far as we can tell, a student fills out a web form and gets nothing back.”