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Columbia to skip U.S. News rankings after professor questioned data

The Ivy League university won’t submit information this year, as it works to ensure accuracy

A man on the Columbia University campus in New York in March 2020. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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Columbia University will skip the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges this year, university officials announced, as they review data that had been questioned by a professor at the school.

“Columbia leaders take these questions seriously, and we immediately embarked on a review of our data collection and submissions process,” the university’s provost, Mary Boyce, wrote Thursday.

In light of that work underway, the university will not submit to U.S. News this year, Boyce wrote: The deadline was Friday, and given the analysis required to review the data, they could not complete the careful work needed by that time.

In February, a professor of mathematics at Columbia, Michael Thaddeus, raised questions about data the Ivy League university had submitted for the ranking of national colleges. Columbia had risen to number two nationally, tied with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thaddeus wrote that the school’s extraordinary rise over the years was gratifying, but it also made him curious. “I just wondered: How can this be that we’re performing so well in this ranking against universities that objectively have certain advantages over us?” he said Friday by phone. “They have much larger endowments. They have a lot more physical space.”

When he looked more closely, he wrote, he concluded that “several of the key figures supporting Columbia’s high ranking are inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading.” Undergraduate class sizes were one variable that jumped out at him; from his experience of nearly 25 years at the university, he was skeptical that more than 80 percent of the classes had fewer than 20 students. He pulled enrollment numbers, created a spreadsheet and concluded that the percentage was probably considerably lower.

The U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges and other similar rankings, released every year, are closely watched, relied on by many prospective students, intensely promoted by ascendant schools — and frequently criticized.

In his February post, Thaddeus quoted Colin S. Diver, who recently wrote a book about the rankings industry, its impact on institutions and what to do about it: “Rankings create powerful incentives to manipulate data and distort institutional behavior.”

“Scandals happen all the time,” Thaddeus said Friday, with people and schools accused of manipulating data. “The system is extremely dysfunctional.”

More fundamentally, he said, it’s too difficult to reduce the complexities of academic institutions in a way that’s comparable place to place. “The greatness of a university is something that just can’t be measured by a linear ranking at all.”

Diver said that when he was dean of the highly competitive University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, he saw the influence of rankings on admissions decisions, giving an edge to applicants with higher standardized test scores. Then he became president of a well-regarded liberal arts school, Reed College, that has declined to submit information for rankings since the 1990s. It was a relief, he said — but he heard from friends at other schools who admired the stance but feared they’d “get hammered” in the rankings if they did the same.

Reed dropped precipitously after it stopped submitting data, he said.

Last fall, Christopher L. Eisgruber, the president of Princeton University, which has topped the list of national universities for more than a decade, wrote that rankings are a problem because they produce “damaging incentives. For example, some colleges avoid doing difficult but valuable things — such as admitting talented lower-income students who can thrive at college if given appropriate support — in favor of easier strategies more likely to add points in the U.S. News formula.”

He called them a misleading way to assess schools and a “slightly daft obsession that does harm when colleges, parents, or students take it too seriously.”

Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer with U.S. News & World Report, wrote in an email that “Columbia University’s acknowledgment they are unable to meet U.S. News & World Report’s data standards for the 2023 Best College Rankings raises a number of questions. We are concerned and are reviewing various options, including the review of data previously submitted by Columbia, to ensure our rankings continue to uphold the highest levels of integrity.

“U. S. News is committed to providing quality information on institutions across the country,” Castro said, “so prospective students and their families can make informed decisions throughout their college search.”

In Columbia’s statement, Boyce wrote that despite what they believed to be a “thorough process for gathering and reporting institutional data,” they are now “closely reviewing our processes in light of the questions raised” by Thaddeus. “The ongoing review is a matter of integrity,” Boyce wrote. “We will take no shortcuts in getting it right.”

The university will publish a Common Data Set this fall to help students and parents evaluate the school, she wrote.

Thaddeus said he’d like to see the university address the specific questions he raised.

Diver said he was pleased to see Columbia initiate a review — but he would prefer to see them seek an independent audit by a law or accounting firm.

And, he said, “I would love to see somebody like Columbia that has real stature and visibility take the lead and say, ‘You know what? These rankings are arbitrary. They’re anti-intellectual. They’re incompatible with our academic values, and we’re not going to cooperate with them anymore.’ ”

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