What is the equivalent of “disbarred” or “defrocked” in the world of college rankings?
Without fanfare, U.S. News & World Report announced that it had “unranked” Columbia University, which had been in a three-way tie for the No. 2 spot in the 2022 edition of Best Colleges, after being unable to verify the underlying data submitted by the university.
The decision was posted on the U.S. News website a week after Columbia said it was withdrawing from the upcoming 2023 rankings.
The Ivy League university said then that it would not participate in the next rankings because it was investigating accusations by one of its own mathematics professors that the No. 2 ranking was based on inaccurate and misleading data.
The biggest beneficiaries may be Harvard and M.I.T., which had shared the second spot with Columbia, and now have one less competitor. Princeton keeps its preening rights as No. 1.
The rankings are influential among students applying to college because objectively comparing schools and visiting every campus they are interested in can be difficult. College presidents have bitterly complained that the rankings are misleading, yet few institutions have dropped out of the game.
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“I had hoped, still hope, that this episode would bring much more attention to the foibles and the failures of the ranking system,” said Colin Diver, the former president of Reed College, who has written a book, “Breaking Ranks,” about the college ranking industry. “Unfortunately, most of higher education, especially the elite part, publicly criticizes the rankings right and left, and yet they cooperate with them.”
The formula’s rankings tend to cement the established reputations of the schools, Mr. Diver said.
In its blog post on Thursday, U.S. News said that after learning of the criticism in March, it had asked Columbia to substantiate the data it had reported, including information about the number of instructional full-time and part-time faculty, the number of full-time faculty with the highest degree in their field, the student-faculty ratio, undergraduate class size and education expenditures.
“To date, Columbia has been unable to provide satisfactory responses to the information U.S. News requested,” the post said.
Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, wrote in an email on Friday that Columbia was no longer ranked in several categories — 2022 National Universities, 2022 Best Value Schools, and 2022 Top Performers on Social Mobility — because those rankings used data from the university’s statistical surveys. The organization has unranked universities before, he said.
Columbia had originally defended its statistics, but said in a statement on Friday that it “takes seriously the questions raised about our data submission,” and that it would not submit further “undergraduate-related information” to U.S. News while its own investigation was underway.
“A thorough review cannot be rushed,” the university wrote. “While we are disappointed in U.S. News & World Report’s decision, we consider this a matter of integrity and will take no shortcuts in getting it right.”
U.S. News has acknowledged that it relies on universities to vet their submitted data, which can be extensive, and that it does not have the resources to conduct independent audits. But the decision to remove Columbia from the current rankings once again raised questions about their overall accuracy.
In a separate blog post, Mr. Morse said that U.S. News publishes annual rankings for more than 11,500 schools and hundreds of individual programs. Typically, less than 0.1 percent a year inform U.S. News that they have misreported data, he said.
He provided a list of several dozen schools that had admitted misreporting data since 2019, and had been suspended a year for their candor.
Michael Thaddeus, the math professor who first raised questions about Columbia’s data on his webpage in February, said the news pointed to the flaws of a rankings system that did not independently vet the data behind it.
“What is clear is there’s no third-party vetting,” Dr. Thaddeus said. “At some point there has to be third-party auditing since these data are so important and so many people are making final decisions based upon the data. It won’t do to say these data are self-reported and there’s no way to check them.”
U.S. News did nod to the critics in its post about Columbia this week. “We continue to be concerned and are reviewing various options to ensure our rankings continue to uphold the highest levels of integrity,” it said.
Mr. Diver said it was standard practice for U.S. News to suspend schools for cheating or misreporting rankings data. But he said that usually happened when the school had admitted to misreporting or there was some kind of independent verification. “I assume they chose to do this because there were credible charges made that they had inflated that data on these different measures,” he said.
The president of Princeton, Christopher Eisgruber, wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post in October in which he said that although Princeton had topped the U.S. News rankings for 11 years, he was not a fan of the list.
“I am convinced that the rankings game is a bit of mishegoss — a slightly daft obsession that does harm when colleges, parents or students take it too seriously,” he wrote. Because students felt pressure to get into high-ranked schools, he said, schools concentrated resources on moving up in the rankings, to the detriment of goals like admitting more talented low-income students.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.