Columbia University math professor Michael Thaddeus believes his school’s No. 2 ranking from U.S. News is based on “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading” data reported to U.S. News by Columbia
When U.S. News published its ranking of the nation’s best universities in September, one very big surprise stood out: Columbia University climbed to its highest level ever, ranking second behind only Princeton University. Columbia’s new perch put it in a tie with Harvard and MIT.
The school proudly noted that it had been ranked third from 2019 to 2021 and that the upward move for 2022 could be attributed in part to its strong graduation rates. “It is gratifying to receive this confirmation of the success of our undergraduate programs, which has been achieved through the commitment of so many faculty, staff, and alumni,” said Dean James J. Valentini in a statement.
But the university’s ranking immediately drew the suspicion of one of its own professors. Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia professor of mathematics, bought a subscription to the underlying data that U.S. News uses to crank out its annual rankings. After poring over all the relevant data, he concluded that his employer’s highest ranking was achieved by “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading” disclosures over several metrics that administrators submitted to U.S. News. Last month, Thaddeus went public with his charges in a highly detailed 21-page paper of more than 11,000 words on his faculty page. Among other things, the professor alleges that Columbia handed over inaccurate data on class sizes, the percentage of full-time faculty with doctorates or other terminal degrees, and how much the university spends on instruction.
To be sure, Thaddeus has little love for rankings in general. He maintains that rankings poorly serve students who are hungry for unbiased information in choosing which colleges and programs to attend. “But rankings provide the wrong information,” he writes. “As many critics have observed, every student has distinctive needs, and what universities offer is far too complex to be projected to a single parameter.”
But the professor reserves special criticism for the universities who participate in these contests and then promote them on their websites and in news releases. “The role played by Columbia itself in this drama is troubling and strange,” he wrote. “In some ways, its conduct seems typical of an elite institution with a strong interest in crafting a positive image from the data that it collects. Its choice to count undergraduates only, contrary to the guidelines, when computing student-faculty ratios is an example of this. Many other institutions appear to do the same. Yet in other ways, Columbia seems atypical, and indeed extreme, either in its actual features or in those that it dubiously claims. Examples of the former include its extremely high proportion of undergraduate transfer students and its enormous number of graduate students overall; examples of the latter include its claim that 82.5% of undergraduate classes have under 20 students, and its claim that it spends more on instruction than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton put together.”
His claims have received wide notice and have added to the long-simmering controversy over rankings and their value. Only last week, the former dean of Temple University’s Fox School of Business was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison after being convicted for rankings fraud. Last year, the deputy dean of Yale’s School of Management Anjani Jain charged that the Bloomberg Businessweek MBA ranking could not be replicated by using the magazine’s methodology. Today, the New York Times weighed into the topic, noting that Thaddeus has been something of a gadfly at the university, challenging the university on a range of issues from administrative bloat to the management of its endowment funds.
For its part, Columbia issued a detailed statement addressing many of the concerns raised by Thaddeus. “We take seriously our responsibility to report information accurately to federal and state entities, as well as to private rankings organizations,” according to the statement. “We consistently work in good faith to answer the hundreds of questions across surveys conducted by U.S. News & World Report and others every year, each with criteria that evolve over time.”
A faculty member at Columbia for 24 years, Thaddeus found a number of significant differences between the numbers Columbia sent U.S. News and his own estimates based on publicly available data directly from the university. One example: U.S. News reports that 83% of undergraduate classes at Columbia have fewer than 20 students. Using data from the online directory of classes, Thaddeus estimated the true proportion is between 63% and 67 %.
The university, however, claims that Thaddeus’ reliance on the directory is misplaced, contending that it is not not an official record of enrollment certified by Columbia’s registrar. “Conclusions he’s drawn from the class directory should be expected to diverge from our official count,” according to the university’s statement.
Another example: U.S. News reports that Columbia boasts the ninth-highest spending per student out of 392 colleges. Part of that high spending is due to university counting of patient care under instructional costs. Thaddeus notes that Columbia reported to the government that instructional spending in 2019–20 was slightly over $3.1 billion. “This is a truly colossal amount of money,” he writes. “It works out to over $100,000 annually per student, graduates, and undergraduates alike. It is by far the largest such figure among those filed with the government by more than 6,000 institutions of higher learning. It is larger than the corresponding figures for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined.”
Thaddeus discovered that “much of what is construed as patient care expense in the Consolidated Financial Statements is construed as instructional expense in the government reports.” Columbia argues that patient care does count as instruction at Columbia because it’s provided by medical-school faculty members who may be training students at the same time.
The professor also takes issue with Columbia’s reported graduation rate. He claims that if transfer students are excluded, the six-year graduation rate would be 96%, exactly as it is reported by Columbia to U.S. News. But if transfers were included, the percentage would drop to 92%. “This may not seem like a big drop, but it matters a lot for the ranking,” writes Thaddeus. “Using the first figure, Columbia is in 6th place, surpassed only by Harvard, Notre Dame, Princeton, Yale, and Duke. Using the second, it slips all the way to 26th place…Since these figures account for fully 22.6% of the overall U.S. News ranking, there is a strong chance that Columbia’s position in this ranking would tumble if transfer students were included.”
He concludes that Columbia is essentially a “two-tier university, which educates, side by side in the same classrooms, two large and quite distinct groups of undergraduates: non-transfer students and transfer students. The former students lead privileged lives: they are very selectively chosen, boast top-notch test scores, tend to hail from the wealthier ranks of society, receive ample financial aid, and turn out very successfully as measured by graduation rates. The latter students are significantly worse off: they are less selectively chosen, typically have lower test scores, tend to come from less prosperous backgrounds, receive much stingier financial aid, and have considerably more difficulty graduating.”
The professor adds that “no one would design a university this way, but it has been the status quo at Columbia for years. The situation is tolerated only because it is not widely understood. The U.S. News ranking, by effacing transfer students from its statistical portrait of the university, bears some responsibility for this. The ranking sustains a perception of the university that is at odds with reality.”
In making his claims, Thaddeus has said he hopes there will be an independent investigation of Columbia’s numbers, while the publicity over the controversy will undermine U.S. News rankings.
“No one should try to reform or rehabilitate the ranking,” he wrote. “It is irredeemable. In Colin Diver’s memorable formulation, ‘Trying to rank institutions of higher education is a little like trying to rank religions or philosophies. The entire enterprise is flawed, not only in detail but also in conception.’”
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