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  • Max Ferrandino

Columbia University and the Fall of US News

In February 2022, Professor Michael Thadeus, a lecturer in Mathematics at Columbia University, published a report titled “An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking.” This report resulted in a reevaluation that caused U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings to shift significantly. This scandal shows the unreliability and overall inaccuracy of college ranking databases as well as the tools that allow institutions like U.S. News to profit.

Columbia fell from second to eighteenth place due to the reevaluation. Columbia bears the brunt of this scandal; however, they are not the first university to “misreport” data to U.S. News. Emory University in Georgia reported incorrect data for “at least 10 years” from 2000 until 2011, when the discrepancy was discovered. This is only the most recent and seemingly highest-profile case of rankings inaccuracies within the U.S. News system.

Going through Professor Thadeus's report, a significant factor in Columbia's fall comes from considering transfer students to Columbia University. Using the figures available for the 2012-2013 cohort from Thadeus's report, they had a “96%” graduation rate over six years. However, when transfer students were included in the calculations, the graduation “percentage drops to 92%,” which, while still impressive, causes the university to fall to “26th” place in the rankings concerning graduation from “6th.” Fundamentally, transfer students at Columbia also receive significantly less financial aid, and “Columbia has come to depend, for example, on transfer students as a source of tuition revenue.

The U.S. News college ranking list is a place where the prestige of the college is determined and appraised by outside viewers. For example, recently all Boston University students received an email that BU had risen one spot in the U.S. News rankings to 41 overall. This seems like a proxy for success in the article, yet it should not be considered one.

For students to access the full rankings for BU - for example, an indicator like the “Outcomes rank” or “Graduation and retention rank” - U.S. News requires one to sign up for something called Compass. Compass is an annual subscription that, “for $39.95,” gives you access to the entire U.S. News website with rankings galore.

It is not just the U.S. News subscription that prospective college students can purchase to get college rankings. The Princeton Review also publishes a book on college ranking that costs $24.99 and gives a detailed ranking of “The Best 388 Colleges” for 2023. The college ranking system has become an industry that profits from compiling data that could help students choose the right school for them but is placed behind a paywall. While compiling data can be helpful, it bogs students down with unnecessary data that may or may not be helpful when applying to universities.

Yet many universities on the U.S. News list publish their data on their websites with something that is called the Common Data Set (CDS), where universities such as BU voluntarily disclose the details about their admissions and degrees offered. BU lists the SAT and ACT average for free on their website, while U.S. News requires you to pay for the details that BU lists on their CDS.

If at least two universities are prepared to lie about their rankings, Emory and Columbia, then the ranking system is fundamentally flawed. As argued by Mushtaq Gunja, a member of the Obama administration Education Department, “I don’t think there’s any reason that a student going to a school that’s ranked 60 versus one ranked 50 is going to have a meaningful risk for their lives.” In addition to mathematical accuracy, this was the point that Professor Thadeus was trying to make when he compiled the report on Columbia’s data.

When Columbia fell those 20 spots, Thadeus argued that “it just discredits the whole ranking operation.” In addition, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce also provide free data regarding earnings for how much a collegiate education is worth using Net Present Value (NPV), which estimates the sum of future earnings with any college degree. Georgetown uses 10, 15, 20, 30, and 40-year NPV ranks for the universities. Princeton University - the number one ranked school on U.S. News - is ranked in the thirties across that NPV index, demonstrating the inaccuracy of the U.S. News ranking.

Professor Thadeus said it best in his conclusion that the business of rankings is “irredeemable” and “the entire enterprise is flawed.” Many high school students use the ranking system to determine which schools would be the best for them; however, they are utilizing, in reality, a system of rankings that emphasizes elite schools over schools that would fit better for the student. Fundamentally, rankings do not meet the student's demands and become “a proxy for merit” where they do not aid a student in choosing where to go to college.

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