Friday, June 17, 2011

The Best Ranking Money Can Buy

In early April, the lead story in the Penn State Faculty and Staff Newswire, a product of The Old Main Propaganda Shop,  was about a top ranking awarded to the Penn State World Campus by Best Colleges.

The same day the Collegian also ran a story about the World Campus and Best Colleges  and  the reporter got Graham to weigh-in on the ranking.
Penn State President Graham Spanier wrote in an email that World Campus has been a great success and established itself as a premier online program since its launch.
“We have already served tens of thousands of students with high-quality courses,” Spanier wrote. “I’m pleased to see that it has been recognized for its achievements.”
I had never heard of Best Colleges and neither had Don Heller, Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State. While I was digging around to see what I could find out about Best Colleges, he was emailing Lisa Powers,  Director of Public Information Bullshit, at  The Old Main Propaganda Shop with a warning:
Last week, Penn State issued a press release touting its World Campus' selection as the "the No. 1 online institution for 2011." This designation was conferred by the website,, which I had never heard of before - and I've seen lots of different rankings over the years. So I spent a little bit of time going through the website, and after about 30 minutes or so, I sent this message to Penn State's Director of Public Information:

I read your press release, and not having heard of Best Colleges, took a look at the website. Unless you have some information establishing the validity and/or reputation of the website, I d be a little cautious about how much you want to promote the WC and other rankings from this site. While they say We do not accept paid placements for our school rankings, it appears to me that this is a site supported entirely by advertising fees from universities. When you do a search for any of the degrees they show there (not the rankings, but a degree search), no matter what the degree, you get a list of for the most part for-profit and online universities, and very few of what most of us would consider more traditional universities whose quality and rankings are more universally recognized.

Here are the criteria they say they use to calculate the rankings for the 25 best online universities:
We ve relied on the following criteria to generate our online colleges and universities rankings: student satisfaction (as measured by graduation and retention rates), peer and instructional quality (as measured by acceptance rate and student-teacher ratio), affordability (as measured by tuition costs and availability of financial aid), and credibility (as measured by years of accreditation, reputation and awards).

To be blunt, this is garbage. Graduation and retention rates are not measures of student satisfaction, any more than acceptance rates and student-teacher ratios are measures of peer and instructional quality.
We can all agree there are problems with the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but they are at least considered reputable by most parties. I would be cautious about trumpeting rankings from Best Colleges externally unless you know more about this organization (which I d be interested in hearing).

Don Heller
One can imagine that  Lisa responded to Don with  Old Main's fallback position whenever they are faced with a ranking problem...."Oh, pshaw...we don't take theses things seriously," and she might have even tossed in a we're so glad you brought the error of our ways to our attention. But apparently no one set Graham set straight or he refused to see the error of his ways, because at the last Board of Trustees meeting in May he bragged to the Trustees that
Students also have embraced Penn State s World Campus, which was named the No. 1 online institution in 2011 by the Best Colleges.
My research into Best Colleges confirms Don's suspicion that these rankings are paid for by the universities being ranked,or at least some of the universities being ranked.  .

It turns out that Best Colleges is an arm of EducationDynamics, a marketing firm which primarily  works with for-profit education sector, but also has some non-profit clients,  and which hides behind various domain names. Here's an example of their work under the name

By the way, this particular ad caught the attention of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin who said on the Senate floor that
"The ad that just really troubles me shows a lovely young woman who says you can go to college in your pajamas.... You don't even have to get out of bed to go to college, and she's got a computer on her bed there." He added that "I don't believe anybody should fall for that, but some must, and they end up signing up for these for-profit schools, getting deep in debt with a worthless diploma when it's all over."
Tracing to EducationDyanamics is straightforward because the domain is registered to EducationDynamics and the EducationConnection is promoted on the EducationDynamics website.

But the trail from Best Colleges to EducationDyanmics was a bit harder to trace. The domain is registered to a Ryan Caldwell in Sea Isle City, New Jersey who does business as SeaWaves Technology LLC. SeaWaves looks like a firm that will do anything web related for a buck. For example, it offers Wi-Fi to B&B's in this Jersey shore town, web design, web hosting and variety of other services . Amongst the websites maintained by SeaWaves, is Grad School Journal, Business School Journal,Health Careers Journal,Super Scholar,College Happenings and Top Colleges Online. It's a good bet that Ryan doesn't generate much of the editorial content for these sites. So who does?

All of these sites, as well as The Best Colleges site,can be traced back to EducationDynamics. For example if you use the "Degree Wizard" on the Best Colleges site it takes you to the a subdomain of ,, and is part of EducationDynamics. In fact, if you poke around on any of SeaWave Technology's education sites you will eventually find yourself at a subdomain of

How does SeaWaves make money on these sites? According to the blog at SeaWaves it is lead generation.
SeaWaves is currently exploring the higher education niche with a new website called Top Colleges Online\ The goal of the website is to provide visitors with information about online education and well as to assist them in choosing a college to attend

The online education niche will offer us an opportunity to diversify our business away from volume based cpm [cost per thousand impressions] advertising and to focus on lead generation opportunities in the profitable higher education industry. Our goal is to quickly build one of the highest quality resources for prospective students on the Internet

We are looking forward to this new challenge.
Here is how lead generation works.
There are agencies that specialize in providing qualified leads to businesses. The process of lead generation is actually very easy. An agency develops a website or partnerships with several websites in which they promote and advertise your product or service. A consumer finds these directories or informational sites and they are able to complete an online quote request form.This form is submitted to the agency. The buyers information is verified and matched to the appropriate providers. These matched leads are then sent via email to the prospective providers with full contact information and purchasing requirements.
LeadWatchLive is EducationDyanamics lead generation software designed specifically for the education sector.

It should be of no surprise that Best College Top 25 Online rankings is part of EducationDynamics lead generation operation. For each of the 25 schools , there is a link for more information (For example, here's the page the more information link for Boston University lands on.) and for all but six  schools the more information page has a request more information button which takes you to request form ( Here's the BU request form).Those request forms are hosted on a subdomain the EducationDynamics domain For these 19 schools, there is little doubt that they are paying for the leads generated by the rankings.

Of the six schools without a request form, two, Penn State and North Carolina State, have links to the school's own websites and the other four have no links at all.  It's not clear if these schools paying anything to EducationDynamics.

But why would Best Colleges drain away leads and income from the paying schools by placing a link to Penn State and NC State's website for free? This isn't a charitable operation, after all. For example, consider the Penn State main campus page at Penn State isn't getting something for nothing there.  The page  has  generic information on Penn State and a  linked list of areas in which Penn State has specialized accreditation, but all of those links take you to lists of schools that have clearly paid for their listing. The page has no links to the Penn State website. 

It's reasonable to wonder what EducationDynamics received in return for the linking to the World Campus in their ranking of Penn State. Did Penn State pay Best Colleges  for the ranking?

It's possible, since Penn State has used EducationDynamics services in the past. According to the fiscal year 2009-2010 Penn State Snyder Report (p. 197, Vol. III, Part A) , Penn State Outreach, the unit in which the World Campus is housed, paid EducationDynamics a total of $55, 940. The same year International Affairs paid $2,500 to EducationDynamics (p. 148, Vol. III, Part A).Outreach also paid $12,566 in fiscal year 2008-2009 (p.530, Vol. III, Part C) and $7,000 in fiscal year 2007-2008 (p. 445 Vol. III, Part B) to EducationDynamics, while International Affairs paid the company $1,200 in fiscal year 2008-2009 (p. 392, Vol. III, Part B).

Because they've done business with EducationDynamics  in the past, Outreach and the folks at the World Campus are certainly familiar with the work of this company, which means that even if  they didn't pay for the ranking they no doubt knew that this ranking is bogus.

To see exactly how bogus, consider this.   If you don't like the Best College Top 25 Online School rankings for 2011, EducationDynamics has you covered with The Best Degrees Top 25 Online Schools in 2011 All of the schools -Penn State isn't ranked- but two in this list have have request forms and for the two that don't the links to for these schools take you to advertizements for other schools.

Despite the fact that the folks in Outreach and the World Campus should have known the the Best Colleges ranking was a fraud, it was World Campus that broke the news of the ranking on their homepage on April 1rst of this year. (The link is no longer up at World Campus,but I archived the page. )  And Outreach went all in on the bullshit in the Collegian article.
Director of Outreach News and Communications Dave Aneckstein said World Campus is excited and appreciative to be regarded as the No. 1 online program in the country.
Aneckstein attributed the success to the growing number of course and program offerings as well as the accessibility of appealing to learners across the world who may not be able to attend a formal university setting but are still looking for the same education.
“We’re very pleased to be considered the top online program and also to have a number of individual programs ranked so high,” Aneckstein said. “We do a lot of work for online students and we’re really appreciative.”
As far as the ranking drawing in a larger number of students, Aneckstein said he wasn’t sure — but the No. 1 title definitely shines a positive light on Penn State and its growing online presence.
In the end however, the real story is that Old Main was warned that this ranking was likely  bogus and Graham  pimped it to the BOT, nonetheless. Of course, if you have been reading this blog for anytime, you are aren't  shocked, after all, this is way of the Nittany Weasel. Even though Old Main's failure to heed Don's warning is of no surprise,  further investigation is certainly warranted into this scam and  Graham's role in it.