Columbia Drops to No. 18 in Latest College Ranking

Problems continue to mount for the Ivy League school, not least of which is the damage to its sterling reputation.

Updated September 14, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Columbia Drops to No. 18 in Latest College Ranking
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Lya_Cattel / E+ / Getty Images

  • Columbia University has fallen from No. 2 to No. 18 in the new U.S. News college rankings.
  • The university recently admitted to falsifying data it submitted to the magazine.
  • Columbia also has begun issuing Common Data Sets to make these statistics public.
  • Two pending class-action lawsuits call the university's actions "unscrupulous."

Columbia University now ranks last among Ivy League schools.

That's what U.S. News & World Report's analysis would have us believe, anyway. In the magazine's latest rankings, published on Sept. 12, Columbia comes in at No. 18, just behind fellow Ivy Cornell.

And to make matters worse, Columbia recently admitted it sent bogus figures to U.S. News, as has been suspected since one of its professors raised red flags last February about the university's reported data.

Columbia Admits to Falsifying Data

In a classic case of burying the lede, Columbia's statement on Sept. 9 announcing the release of two Common Data Sets includes an admission that the university sent U.S. News incorrect data in 2021.

Specifically, Provost Mary Boyce reveals Columbia misrepresented data related to class size and faculty with terminal degrees. In U.S. News' rankings methodology, class size accounts for 8% of a university's score, and terminal-degree percentage accounts for 3%.

Those two metrics, along with several others, were scrutinized earlier this year by Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus, who in February published "An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia's U.S. News Ranking" on his faculty website. The article questioned how Columbia could rise from its No. 18 ranking in 1998 to No. 2 in 2021 and showed how manipulated data may have accounted for this "dizzying ascent."

With respect to class size, Thaddeus estimated the percentage of Columbia classes with fewer than 20 students should be somewhere between 62.7% and 66.9%, not the 82.5% Columbia told U.S. News. As it turns out, the actual figure for fall 2021 was 57%, notes the university's announcement.

Thaddeus also concluded the percentage of Columbia faculty with terminal degrees should be around 96%, not 100%, as the university claimed. He was close. That figure is actually 95.3%, the announcement reports.

Boyce's statement essentially constitutes an apology.

"Anything less than complete accuracy in the data that we report — regardless of the size or the reason — is inconsistent with the standards of excellence to which Columbia holds itself," the provost said. "We deeply regret the deficiencies in our prior reporting and are committed to doing better."

The main thrust of Columbia's statement, at least ostensibly, is to announce the university's participation in the Common Data Set initiative. Until now, Columbia has been the only Ivy League school not to issue a Common Data Set, which makes public much of the raw data U.S. News uses to calculate its rankings.

Thaddeus found the university's lack of participation "highly unusual."

"I think this is a symptom of much broader problems in the Columbia administration with a lack of transparency and their willingness to create a gap between perception and reality," Thaddeus told the Columbia Spectator, the student paper, in March. "They are more interested in improving the way Columbia is perceived than the way it really is."

U.S. News Relegates Columbia Among the Unranked

Over the summer, amid swirling allegations of fraud, Columbia decided not to submit data to U.S. News ahead of the July 1 deadline for the 2022-2023 issue.

At the same time, after Columbia "failed to respond to multiple" requests asking the university to "substantiate certain data it previously submitted," U.S. News stripped Columbia of its No. 2 status, relegating it to the category of "unranked" institutions. U.S. News called its response an "appropriate remedial action."

Now — perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not — Columbia finds itself back in the No. 18 spot it inhabited in 1998. U.S. News operates with a healthy dollop of secrecy in its number crunching, especially with schools that don't submit data. What we do know is that colleges failing to submit data usually fall well below what their reputations might suggest.

Returning Columbia to No. 18 and sending it to the back of the Ivy League line might qualify as further retribution on the magazine's part.

Columbia Faces Class-Action Lawsuits For 'Unscrupulous' Behavior

Yet the rankings drop could be the least of Columbia's worries.

The university faces two possible class-action lawsuits, filed in July, claiming it deceived students by offering an educational product inferior to what was advertised. Plaintiffs seek compensatory damages exceeding $5 million.

More specifically, the suits say Columbia knew its ranking was a "false representation of fact, based upon lies and fabricated data" submitted to U.S. News. The university also knew its ranking "provided significant leverage" to enable it to increase enrollment and raise tuition and fees.

Through such deception, Columbia "breached its agreement" with students by misrepresenting "certain characteristics, qualifications, requirements, benefits, and levels of attainment that it did not actually possess," according to claims.

Columbia's actions and conduct, the complaints claim, were "immoral, unethical, and/or unscrupulous" and have "raised grave concerns about the value and legitimacy of a Columbia degree."

Whether these cases move forward remains to be seen, but either way, Columbia has sustained a serious blow to its reputation in the court of public opinion.