Columbia Faces Class-Action Lawsuits Amid Rankings Scandal

The college rankings frenzy has become so absurd that it's now landing universities in court.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on August 15, 2022
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Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
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  • Two lawsuits claim Columbia University intentionally deceived students by falsifying data submitted to U.S. News & World Report.
  • The suits seek damages in excess of $5 million, but a damaged reputation could be far more costly.
  • Columbia, which didn't submit data for the 2023 rankings, remains "unranked" by U.S. News.
  • This isn't the first time a university has been sued and accused of falsifying U.S. News data.

The situation keeps getting worse for Columbia University.

Following accusations that it submitted falsified data to U.S. News & World Report for its college rankings, the magazine stripped the university of its No. 2 status and relegated it among the "unranked."

Now, Columbia faces two possible class-action lawsuits claiming the university deceived students by offering an educational product inferior to what was advertised. Plaintiffs seek compensatory damages, but the real damage is to Columbia's reputation.

Lawsuits Document Columbia's 'Unscrupulous' Behavior

The first complaint was filed in July on behalf of Ravi Campbell, a Columbia undergraduate from 2012-2016. A second, submitted a month later, represents someone known only as "Student A" — a full-time graduate student who attended the university from 2019-2021.

Both were filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York as class-action complaints on behalf of "all persons who enrolled as students at Columbia from 2016 to present," which might explain why a former graduate student can be involved in a case pertaining to Columbia's undergraduate program. (The attorney representing the plaintiffs did not respond to an inquiry attempting to clarify this point of law.)

The two complaints differ only in the naming of plaintiffs. Otherwise, they paint the same picture of a university knowingly deceiving students through the falsification of data in an attempt to elevate its status in the industry's most influential college rankings publication.

Columbia's actions and conduct, the complaints claim, were "immoral, unethical, and/or unscrupulous." These documents do not mince words.

“For an institution as wealthy as Columbia, that amount is relatively negligible, though not insignificant. More concerning is the potential damage to the university's reputation”

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."

Thus, students who "decided to enroll at Columbia largely due to the prestige associated with Columbia's extremely high … ranking" did not receive "the benefit of attending a [U.S. News] top-ranked educational institution."

Had students known of Columbia's "misreporting of data and deceptive practices," the suit conjectures, they would not have applied to Columbia and "would not have agreed to pay premiums for tuition, fees and costs based, in material part, upon Columbia's [U.S. News] ranking."

Therefore, plaintiffs (students) "have been damaged and sustained pecuniary injury" of an amount exceeding $5 million, according to both suits.

For an institution as wealthy as Columbia, that amount is relatively negligible, though not insignificant. More concerning is the potential damage to the university's reputation. The complaints note the university's actions "have raised grave concerns about the value and legitimacy of a Columbia degree."

Bear in mind that these allegations remain unproven — Columbia has not officially acknowledged any wrongdoing. Still, perception alone might be enough to sully the university's stellar reputation, at least in the near term.

Professor Precipitates Columbia's Fall From Grace

The 2022 U.S. News rankings were initially kind to Columbia. When the new list debuted last fall, Columbia ranked second, tied with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only one sister Ivy school, Princeton, ranked higher.

Yet things began to unravel in February when Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus posted an article on his faculty website titled "An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia's U.S. News Ranking." Alleging the school had repeatedly sent bogus stats to U.S. News in an attempt to elevate its standing, Thaddeus' post precipitated the university's fall from grace.

Thaddeus detailed a pattern of "discrepancies" with data related to full-time faculty percentages and terminal degrees, instructional spending, graduation rates, and student-faculty ratios, among other concerns. He suggested these erroneous stats help explain Columbia's "dizzying ascent" from No. 18 in 1988 to No. 2 today — a meteoric rise that he claims rests on a "web of illusions."

In response, Columbia promised to investigate the situation and decided not to submit data to U.S. News ahead of the July 1 deadline for the 2023 issue.

"Columbia has long conducted what we believed to be a thorough process for gathering and reporting institutional data, but we are now closely reviewing our processes in light of the questions raised," Provost Mary Boyce said in a statement. "The ongoing review is a matter of integrity. We will take no shortcuts in getting it right."

Armed with this damning information and unsatisfied with the university's unwillingness to substantiate submitted data, editors at U.S. News stripped Columbia of its No. 2 status, casting it down into the bowels of the rankings hierarchy known as the "unranked," where it languishes today.

Whether Columbia remains in U.S. News purgatory for 2023 or is indeed ranked, presumably lower, remains to be seen. The new lists come out this fall.

Recent Legal Cases Demonstrate Absurdity of Rankings

What began almost 40 years ago as a ploy to sell magazines has become so ingrained in an American zeitgeist obsessed with college admissions that battles over positions on a list are being waged in our nation's courts.

People are losing their jobs and landing in jail over college rankings.

In 2021, Moshe Porat, a former dean of the Fox Business School at Temple University was sentenced to 14 months in prison after being convicted of wire fraud for submitting false data to U.S. News.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Porat "conspired and schemed to deceive the school's applicants, students and donors into believing that the school offered top-ranked business degree programs, so that they would pay tuition and make donations to Temple."

And earlier this year, students at Rutgers University filed a class-action suit claiming the university's MBA program falsified its post-graduation job placement figures to game the U.S. News ranking system and entice students to enroll.

Whether or not Columbia's lofty ranking — more than its longstanding reputation for academic excellence and its Ivy League status — enticed students to apply and enroll is impossible to determine across the entire student body. Are students concerned about Columbia's alleged actions, perhaps embarrassed? Do they feel duped? Or are they indifferent?

Anecdotal evidence paints only a partial picture of student views on the matter.

Undergraduate Bekim Bruka told the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper, he has seen "a lot of students who were alarmed by this scandal."

Matthew Monroe Rogers, a recent Columbia graduate, told the paper he found the "potential for fraud" concerning, though added it hasn't hampered his job-search process.

"I took LGBT history from a professor who just won a major award from the Library of Congress," Rogers said. "I took a class from a professor about Southeast Asian history who was at the fall of Saigon. … You can make our rank disappear for a year but these things aren't going to necessarily go anywhere."