The scandal facing college ranking lists, explained

Story at a glance

  • This week, U.S. News & World Report published its annual best university list, featuring Columbia University as the second best institution in the country.

  • After conducting his own investigation, a professor at Columbia argued data given to U.S. News was inaccurate.

  • Columbia admitted to providing faulty data, and U.S. News subsequently dropped the school’s ranking down to 18th place.

The latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s annual best university list has sparked a heated debate in the higher education world, as Columbia University was caught using misleading data by one of its own faculty members to earn a higher ranking.

On Monday, U.S News published its long-standing list of the country’s top universities, a resource used by millions of prospective college students and their families, and more than 1,850 schools report data to the publication in order to be considered.

In its initial iteration of the 2022-23 best college rankings list, Ivy League institution Columbia University was featured as the second best school in the country, working its way up after debuting at 18th place back in 1988. It was surpassed only by Princeton University and tied with Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, a math professor at Columbia called out his employer for providing faulty data to U.S. News in order to secure a higher ranking — and the school confirmed his allegations and saw its ranking drop 16 places, down to 18, in response.

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U.S. News says it uses 17 metrics of academic quality to assess colleges and universities — that includes graduation and retention rates, average graduate indebtedness, class size, academic reputation and more.

However, Michael Thaddeus, a professor of mathematics at Columbia, argued that the data used to support Columbia’s second place ranking “proves to be inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading.”

In an analysis published to his website, Thaddeus argued Columbia incorrectly claimed about 82 percent of undergraduate classes enrolled fewer than 20 students — a higher percentage than any other school in the top 100 — yet when he examined data from Columbia’s class directory, Thaddeus found it was likely between 62 and 67 percent.

Thaddeus also wrote that the graduation rates reported by Columbia to U.S. News were “extremely high” and that transfer students, who account for about 30 percent of Columbia’s incoming undergraduates, are excluded from that figure.

“Students are poorly served by rankings. To be sure, they need information when applying to colleges, but rankings provide the wrong information,” explained Thaddeus who reiterated that the data on which rankings are based cannot be trusted.

Columbia responded to Thaddeus’ accusations by publishing additional data and admitted that “we had previously relied on outdated and/or incorrect methodologies for current and future data submissions.”

College ranking lists, like the one U.S. News puts out every year, have drawn criticism from some experts, like Michael Itzkowtiz, a senior fellow at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, who said on Twitter, “these rankings continue to focus on exclusivity and resources, rather than accessibility and economic mobility.”

Even Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona expressed disdain for college ranking lists, saying last month at an August conference that “many institutions spend enormous time and money chasing rankings they feel carry prestige, but in truth, ‘do little more than ‘xerox privilege,’ as one HBCU president says.”

Cardona went on to say more often than not, the country’s best resourced schools chase rankings that “mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for all Americans. That system of ranking is a joke.”

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that at the end of fiscal year 2020, Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University and Princeton University had endowments surpassing $20 billion — all schools ranked within the top five best of U.S. News 2022-23 university rankings.

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