• J. W. Barlament

Columbia Just Exposed College Rankings as a Scam

Columbia University — one of eight Ivy League schools, New York City’s flagship school, alma mater of Barack Obama, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Allen Ginsberg, Amelia Earhart, Alicia Keys, Warren Buffet, and many, many more — is in hot water. And it might just take the entire college ranking industry down in flames.

Columbia University, 2021, photo by author

If you go look at the US News & World Report, the original and (until now) most reputable college ranking system out there, and its 2022 Best National Universities rankings, you’ll notice something strange. As of this writing, Princeton sits at #1, followed by Harvard and MIT tied for #2, Yale at #5, and Stanford at #6. But isn’t that only five schools? Surely US News knows how to count to six?

Truth is, they just removed a school — Columbia — which also used to occupy the coveted #2 spot, and all because of one professor’s poking around in the public-access data Columbia submitted to US News.

Professor of mathematics Michael Thaddeus had reservations about the accuracy of a lot of the data Columbia submitted, such as the average class size, student:faculty ratio, percentage of university revenue spent on instruction, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, and percentage of classes taught by full-time faculty.

Columbia has been no stranger to controversy surrounding that last point — graduate student workers, who teach many undergraduate classes and don’t receive the salary or benefits of full-time faculty, went on strike twice in the spring and fall of 2021 to renegotiate what were seen as deeply unfair contracts with the university.

Despite this controversy and many rumblings around the university about class size and faculty available for undergraduate instruction, the 2022 rankings were released with Columbia tied for #2, eliciting elation from some and caution from others.

Thaddeus then went to work comparing the data Columbia submitted with the actual data as available to him, which he detailed step-by-step in this paper. The results were shocking.

Columbia claimed to US News that 82.5% of classes enrolling undergraduates had 20 or fewer students. Thaddeus calculated the actual number was between 62.7–66.9%.

They claimed 100% of full-time faculty held terminal degrees. Thaddeus found the actual number was 96%.

They claimed 96.5% of faculty were employed full-time. Thaddeus found that number to be much lower — 74.1%.

They claimed a student:faculty ratio of 6:1. Again, Thaddeus disagreed, finding a ratio of 11:1.

Yikes.

US News, on their part, recently responded to Thaddeus’ criticisms (released earlier this year and given much media attention since) by pulling Columbia from the rankings, saying the school:

Failed to respond to multiple U.S. News requests that the university substantiate certain data it previously submitted to U.S. News.”

Silence, then. Columbia met the criticisms with silence. It seems a surefire conclusion that the data was misrepresented, purposefully, to give the school a better ranking. But the question remains: why?

Columbia University, 2020 (photo by author)

College rankings have turned from a minor point of interest to a major point of contention, and from one annual publication into an entire industry, in recent years. The problem, essentially, is this: parents and potential students all across the country are using rankings as definitive measures to determine where best to go to college. The massive weight given by the public to these rankings puts pressure on universities to better their numbers however they can; in theory, by bettering their education, but oftentimes in practice by simply misrepresenting the data.

And, unless a skeptical professor calls their bluff, they typically get away with it, too. Thaddeus himself in the opening to his paper gives a quote from former Reed College president Colin Diver that outlines exactly why that is. He says:

Rankings create powerful incentives to manipulate data and distort institutional behavior for the sole or primary purpose of inflating one’s score. Because the rankings depend heavily on unaudited, self-reported data, there is no way to ensure either the accuracy of the information or the reliability of the resulting rankings.”

A full 80% of the data used by US News in their ranking system is self-reported by participating schools with no third-party oversight. That leaves a lot of room for corrupt schools to cheat unnoticed.

And make no mistake, Columbia is corrupt. Trust me; I’m heading into my third year there, and I’ve seen an administration more interested in good optics and performative activism than responding to actual students’ demands to alleviate unfair tuition charges during semesters of online learning and pay grad students living wages in infamously expensive NYC. University president Lee Bollinger has retained his spot for 20 years despite incredible unpopularity among everyone other than donors. Scores of wealthy students lying about their at-home situations and pulling strings through their connected or university-employed parents were able to live on-campus for the 2020–21 year, despite only students with real financial need supposedly being eligible to live on campus; an open secret amongst the student populace that no one has seen any repercussions for. In the Ivies, deceit is the name of the game.

But they’re not the only corrupt college out there. In fact, if they weren’t corrupt, they’d be left in the dust in the rankings, and the only reason the discrepancies in their data were revealed was because Columbia, unlike most other schools, made that data public-access.

Colleges across the country have been known for years to be manipulating data to score better in rankings than they should, and all because the public lends more weight to their rankings than their fit for each student. Colleges feel they need to look good, rather than be good, and as a result, students’ real needs are ignored and quality of education is made an afterthought to the all-important but dime a dozen “best universities” lists. These lists don’t do much good anyway, but the harm they’re doing is immense, both in misleading kids and parents and in taking precedence over current students’ needs.

What has to be done about this, dear reader, I’ll leave up to you. But “nothing” is not an option.