Columbia University has fallen to No. 18 on the new U.S. News Best Colleges list, months after a math professor questioned the integrity of data the school submitted for the well-known rankings.
The Ivy League school in Morningside Heights had previously been ranked No. 2, behind Princeton University. Columbia late Friday announced results from an internal review of its data underway since this summer, finding some of its data on class sizes had been “reported incorrectly” to U.S. News, and that Columbia’s methodology for determining faculty with terminal degrees led to cases of overreporting.
“On two of the metrics questioned by our faculty member, class size and faculty with terminal degrees, we determined we had previously relied on outdated and/or incorrect methodologies,” Provost Mary Boyce said in a statement on Columbia’s website.
Boyce said Columbia had departed from those methodologies “for current and future data submissions.” She added that it had posted two Common Data sets to its website, referring to data standards and definitions adopted by various other universities in the United States. Columbia had previously been the only Ivy League school not to do so.
Michael Thaddeus, the Columbia math professor whose analysis sparked a chain of events that resulted in his own university’s demotion, said the U.S. News list was ridiculous to begin with.
“Does it make sense to conclude from this folly that Columbia is the 18th best American university, worse than Cornell (No. 17) but better than Berkeley (No. 20)?” Thaddeus said in an email to Gothamist. “Of course not — that would be ridiculous. The only thing that makes sense is paying no attention to these bogus rankings at all.”
U.S. News said it used data from a range of alternative sources — including from the federal government — in Columbia’s latest ranking.
"Given that our requests for verification for the 2021-2022 data went unmet, we are not confident in the accuracy of the data Columbia submitted and did not use any prior year data,” said Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, in a statement.
The saga began in February, when Thaddeus posted an article challenging data Columbia submitted for the rankings. Among other issues, Thaddeus was skeptical of Columbia’s claim that 82.5% of its undergraduate courses had fewer than 20 students. He also doubted that Columbia spent $3.1 billion on “instruction” in the 2019-20 school year.
“One is hard-pressed to imagine how Columbia could spend such an immense sum on instruction alone,” Thaddeus wrote.
Columbia, after initially standing by its data, eventually responded by announcing it would not participate in the upcoming round of rankings, and was conducting an internal probe. U.S. News took the additional step of “unranking” Columbia from the No. 2 spot in the 2022 list, where it had been tied with Harvard and MIT.
The ordeal highlighted the high stakes for institutions at the top of the list, which serves as a powerful marketing tool. Critics have slammed the list as opaque and highly questionable.
“University rankings are garbage on so many levels,” Thaddeus said in an interview. “The most fundamental level is that universities themselves submit data about themselves. And they have a very strong interest, of course, in the data being as favorable as possible. It’s a classic conflict of interest.”
Still, families and prospective students increasingly rely on rankings to navigate the crowded landscape of higher education. Critics have also questioned whether certain metrics used in rankings like those published by U.S. News give any insight into the quality of education at a school.
“One of the factors that is used in the U.S. News ranking is the percentage of alumni who make donations to the university,” Thaddeus said. “Why is that a relevant figure to the quality of education that you receive today?”
Morse said Columbia’s No. 18 rank was based on data collected from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, the College Scorecard, and the publication's own peer assessment survey, among other sources.
“Based on those data sets,” Morse wrote, “Columbia ranks No. 18 in National Universities.”
Columbia announced an internal review of its data collection and submission process in a statement on Jun. 30. “The ongoing review is a matter of integrity. We will take no shortcuts in getting it right,” Boyce said in her statement this summer.
But Thaddeus said Columbia was “seemingly incapable of telling the truth about the most basic features of the university.” Though the institution's leaders had taken the appropriate steps by acknowledging some data discrepancies in their submission, he asserted, they had failed to produce a more comprehensive accounting of how things went wrong — and who ultimately bore responsibility.
“Columbia's strength lies chiefly in its brilliant faculty and brilliant students. But the integrity of our administrative leaders is now seriously in doubt,” he wrote in an email.
As for U.S. News? It should “get out of the rankings business altogether,” Thaddeus wrote.