College Ranking Warning: This system is set up to fail students

Editor’s note: Michael Thaddeus is a professor of mathematics at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in the commentary are those of the author. See more reviews on CNN.


The scandal between Columbia University and US News & World Report escalated to a new level last week when Columbia admitted that some of the data it sent to US News last year was incorrect. US News initially dropped Columbia from its rankings entirely, then dropped it from second place to 18th after Columbia refused to submit this year’s ranking survey.

The article that first exposed Columbia’s misrepresentation was written not by a disgruntled opponent but by a tenured professor in Columbia’s mathematics department. Many people had to scratch their heads and ask, “Why did he do it?”

I’m a math professor at Columbia, and I’d be the first to admit that what I was doing was unusual and unpleasant. I began looking into the matter because Columbia’s dubious claims to US News raised my suspicions that 83% of its undergraduate classes enroll fewer than 20 students. I assumed that Columbia would respond promptly and directly to the questions raised. I never imagined that his response would be so slow and clumsy that the scandal would drag on for months. Although the short-term damage to Columbia’s reputation has been painful to witness, I believe it was necessary to speak out.

Columbia’s leadership over the past two decades has made it an irresistible opportunity to portray college life in ways that match reality. False ranking data is just a symptom of this deeper wrongdoing.

People were told for years, for example, that Columbia had a higher proportion of small undergraduate classes (fewer than 20 students) than any other top university. Last week, a truth long known to Columbia faculty and students was confirmed: Our undergraduate class sizes are by no means very small. In fact, Columbia’s underclassmen ratio is the second worst in the Ivy League, not the best as Columbia claimed.

Also, our administration claimed that the overwhelming majority of faculty on our main campus were full-time, but we now know that was also false. In reality, the numbers of part-time teachers and full-time teachers are almost equal. Columbia, like many other universities, is embracing the “gig economy,” outsourcing much of its teaching to temporary workers who lack adequate benefits and the protection of the position that allowed me to speak freely.

To be sure, Columbia is a rich, multi-billion dollar institution, but its assets have often been misspent. Funds have been wasted on the wrong projects, like a chain of “Global Centers” on four continents that don’t hire students and don’t hire teachers, but administrators.

Meanwhile, the university’s core components, including its undergraduate colleges, are starved of resources and space. There are more than 9 students on the meal plan for every full seat in our dining hall, according to a Columbia Daily Spectator report last spring. As a result, our students often cannot sit at meals and have to eat standing up. That is not worthy of a top university; in fact, it is not worth it for any university.

Columbia often prides itself on its financial commitment to Columbia College students, who are admitted regardless of ability to pay and are offered debt-free financial aid packages. He is less fond of discussing the conditions offered to undergraduates in his School of General Studies, who, although they tend to come from less wealthy families, receive far less generous financial aid and are often deeply in debt.

In this context, Provost Mary Boyce’s announcement earlier this month that US News attributed inaccuracies to “outdated and/or flawed methodologies” struck a chord with many students and faculty. Something more at fault than the methodology is that a key figure, reported as 83%, is actually 57%. Many serious questions remain unanswered: How long did the misrepresentations last? Who was responsible for them? And did our top leaders, including President Boyce and Lee Bollinger, know what was going on?

These questions can only be answered by an independent examination by an outside body, such as a law firm. Columbia should commission one immediately, without delay or excuse. This has been common in recent US News rankings scandals, including one at Claremont McKenna College in 2012 that led to the resignation of the dean of admissions, and another at Temple University that landed him in jail in 2018. for conspiracy and wire fraud by the dean of the business school.

The US news also has a lot to answer for in this scandal. While it positions college rankings as a consumer service, the product it sells has done enormous damage to American higher education. It is a simplistic and distorted view of academic merit. US News claims to determine the “Best Colleges,” but all it really does is add in some weird variables like alumni giving and administrative expenses.

No attempt is made to directly assess the quality of teaching and scholarship. How could Good education is a subtle thing that is too complex to reduce to a single number. A one-size-fits-all approach to US News rankings ignores the reality that different students have different interests and needs. Some favor the arts, for example, others prefer the sciences, but the classification does not make such a distinction. Students are not advised to rely on the arbitrary rating assigned by others rather than choosing by thinking for themselves.

US News says it relies on schools to report their data accurately. But requiring schools to report unaudited data about themselves exposes them to intense conflicts of interest. Administrators are allowed to manipulate the numbers, game the system and focus on parameters of dubious importance, paying scant attention to what happens in the classroom.

At a basic level, the US News classification is a failure because the alleged facts on which it is based cannot be trusted. Clearly, the analysis of the data reported by the universities has been light, if poor.

Fortunately, society is waking up to the ranking fraud. US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the university rankings a “joke” in a speech last month. “Breaking Ranks,” the new book by former Reed College president Colin Diver, strips away the shreds of credibility that keep the rankings business. Meanwhile, websites like College Scorecard and College Navigator, created by the US Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, are providing a meaningful alternative to rankings, providing detailed data and allowing applicants to search based on their interests. Prospective students expect to see college rankings: fraud and distraction.

The details of this scandal, like most scandals, are complicated and confusing. But its lessons are clear and simple. Columbia should do a thorough cleaning of its administrative leadership and renew its commitment to teaching and research. And US News should get out of the ratings business entirely.