Columbia Loses No. 2 Spot in College Ranking. Now What?

If Columbia's new U.S. News ranking falls well below the likes of Harvard and MIT, should it really matter? And what could this mean for the future of college rankings?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst 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...
Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • Columbia University is now "unranked" in U.S. News & World Report's 2022 edition.
  • The university also declined to submit data for the 2023 college rankings.
  • Columbia's ranking could fall dramatically in the 2023 edition, due in September.
  • The situation could lead to a rankings boycott by Columbia and peer institutions, but it's unlikely.

Founded in 1988 in Redmond, Washington, DigiPen Institute of Technology enrolls about 1,200 students. Its acceptance rate is 57%.

The University of Saint Katherine, founded in 2010 in San Marcos, California, has 238 students. It accepts 64% of applicants.

Columbia University, founded in 1754 in New York City, has 6,170 undergraduates and an acceptance rate of 3.73%.

What do these three institutions have in common? They all fall into the category of "unranked" in U.S. News & World Report's college rankings.

How did Columbia find itself suddenly plucked from its lofty perch at No. 2 among national universities and unceremoniously dumped onto the magazine's Island of Misfit Toys? And what implications might this turn of events have for the future of college rankings?

Columbia Professor Claims the University Submitted False Data

A year ago, Columbia was living large. It ranked second — tied with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in the most venerated (and vilified) college ranking in the land.

But things began to unravel last February, when Michael Thaddeus, a mathematics professor at the university, posted an entry on his faculty website titled "An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia's U.S. News Ranking." In a classic case of biting the hand that feeds you — a right reserved for the tenured few — Thaddeus alleged the school had repeatedly sent bogus stats to U.S. News in an attempt to elevate its standing.

His extensive analysis detailed a pattern of "discrepancies" with data related to full-time faculty percentages, instructional spending, graduation rates, and student-faculty ratios. Thaddeus suggested those erroneous stats help explain Columbia's "dizzying ascent" from No. 18 in 1988 to No. 2 today. That meteoric rise, Thaddeus claimed, rests on a "web of illusions."

He also noted that Columbia doesn't issue a Common Data Set, which makes public much of the raw data U.S. News uses to calculate its rankings. Calling this omission "highly unusual," Thaddeus pointed out that Columbia is the only Ivy League school — and one of only eight among U.S. News' top 100 universities — not to publish such data.

"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. "They are more interested in improving the way Columbia is perceived than the way it really is."

The media, of course, ate this up.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell, a consistently vocal critic of college rankings, had a field day with the news. And why not? Fresh off the "Varsity Blues" scandal came yet another example of a prominent university caught with its hand in the cookie jar.

Not that Columbia was alone in fudging data to improve rankings.

Around that same time, Rutgers University got busted for falsified numbers related to its MBA program. The University of Southern California withdrew its education school from the U.S. News rankings after it discovered a "history of inaccuracies," including potentially inflated Graduate Record Examinations scores. And a former business dean at Temple University was sentenced to 14 months in prison for submitting false data that helped Temple rise to No. 1 among online MBA programs.

Amid all this hullabaloo, Columbia 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."

Boyce added that the university would, in fact, publish its Common Data Set to help students and their families decide among colleges.

Columbia Becomes 'Unranked' for 2022

This situation evidently doesn't sit well with editors at U.S. News. In July, the magazine stripped Columbia of its No. 2 status, relegating it to the dregs of the unranked after Columbia "failed to respond to multiple" requests asking the university to "substantiate certain data it previously submitted."

A quick perusal of the national university rankings reveals that Columbia is indeed no longer listed at No. 2.

It also has no numerical rank in the magazine's 2022 Best Value Schools and Top Performers on Social Mobility, though it remains ranked in Undergraduate Teaching, Most Innovative Schools, Writing in the Disciplines, and First-Year Experience among other categories that don't rely on data submitted by institutions. Nor does this affect the rankings of Columbia's graduate schools.

U.S. News calls its response an "appropriate remedial action."

To be fair, Columbia isn't the first high-profile school to lose its U.S. News ranking. In the 2019 iteration, the University of California, Berkeley was unranked thanks to misreported data about alumni donations.

The question remains as to whether Columbia will be ranked for 2023 — the next iteration of the U.S. News rankings will arrive this September — or stay unranked. The magazine has been mum about its intentions.

“The question remains as to whether Columbia will be ranked for 2023 — the next iteration of the U.S. News rankings will arrive this September — or stay unranked.”

Quotation mark

"Columbia University's acknowledgment they are unable to meet U.S. News & World Report's data standards for the 2023 Best Colleges rankings raises a number of questions," the magazine told BestColleges in an email. "We are concerned and are reviewing various options to ensure our rankings continue to uphold the highest levels of integrity."

Presumably, Columbia will be ranked. If not, then Columbia spends another year in rankings purgatory while it figures out its next steps.

Assuming U.S. News does rank Columbia, the university will most likely fall precipitously from its No. 2 spot. In 1995, Reed College famously decided to boycott the rankings and stop submitting data to U.S. News. As a result, Reed's ranking dropped considerably thanks to the punitive treatment non-submitting institutions face at the hands of the magazine's rankers.

Colin Diver, a former president of Reed College and dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, inherited and continued Reed's tradition of boycotting the rankings. He recently wrote a book drawing on his unique experience with rankings titled "Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It."

Diver told BestColleges that Columbia should expect its ranking to drop.

"Its ranking will probably fall because U.S. News has a habit of plugging in missing numbers that are lower than what the school would have reported," Diver wrote in an email.

He explained that in the past, U.S. News often assumed numbers that fell 15% below the average for a school's peer group. Given that Columbia's statistical portrait positions it well above that average, assigning numerical values 15% below the mean would result in a considerable drop.

On its methodology page, U.S. News offers a rather opaque explanation of how it treats non-submitters, though the upshot — a lower ranking — is evident.

"When substitute data was not available, schools received assigned values that are lower than most schools' actual values," its website notes. "As always, schools incur no explicit penalty in the rankings for not submitting their data to U.S. News, but often benefit by being scored on their complete, most recent data."

To assess the different outcomes generated by using "assigned values" instead of real data, a team of Reed students "reverse-engineered" the U.S. News rankings system and plugged in the college's actual numbers. They discovered the college should have been ranked No. 38 in 2019 instead of No. 90, where U.S. News placed it.

It's unlikely Columbia would fall that far, but it could plummet well below its Ivy peers.

Imagining the Demise of College Rankings

Beyond this next iteration of the rankings, the real question is what Columbia — and perhaps its sister institutions — will do going forward. Could this experience become the catalyst that causes Columbia to boycott the rankings permanently? Might other elite institutions follow suit?

It's no secret college presidents universally despise the rankings — even those at institutions that fare well. Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, which routinely ranks first in the National Universities category, calls the rankings a "slightly daft obsession that does harm when colleges, parents, or students take it too seriously."

Diver thinks there's only a slim chance Columbia and peers would refuse to participate in future rankings.

"Conceivably Columbia, to deflect the embarrassment of having to admit its 2022 numbers were inflated (and its number 2 ranking therefore undeserved), might heroically declare that it is pulling out of the U.S. News ranking permanently," he wrote. "If it did, maybe some other elites would then muster the courage to pull out as well. Two low-probability events multiplied yield a very low probability outcome."

But let's say they did. Columbia washes its hands of the whole rankings industry, and similar elites, equally frustrated, follow this clarion call and stop participating. What becomes of the U.S. News rankings?

“Currently, 20% of an institution's U.S. News ranking score is based on peer assessment surveys. If enough colleges refused to submit surveys, the instrument would lose validity.”

Quotation mark

The magazine could continue to rank colleges, but its methodology would have to change. Currently, 20% of an institution's U.S. News ranking score is based on peer assessment surveys. If enough colleges refused to submit surveys, the instrument would lose validity.

Instead, the magazine would have to evaluate institutions based solely on objective data available through Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Common Data Set. It obviously would rejigger its formula to account for the 20% attributed to the reputational survey. And penalizing institutions for failure to submit data no longer would make sense when that becomes more the rule than the exception.

But if the U.S. News rankings were to rely only on publicly available data, anyone could crunch those numbers and predict the rank order. The secret sauce in the magazine's recipe is the reputational survey.

Thaddeus, for one, would welcome such a boycott of college rankings, which he terms "irredeemable."

"I think it would be great if Columbia just stopped participating in the ranking the way Reed College did," Thaddeus told the Columbia Spectator. "I think what would be even better would be if other universities also stopped participating, if they just said, 'We're not having this anymore. We're not going to let some news magazine dictate what our priorities ought to be.'"

For now, Columbia will have to endure the shame associated with (allegedly) falsifying data and joining the ranks of the unranked. It also might have to deal with upset students, alumni, and donors stewing over an unfavorable spot in the 2023 edition.

Yet the truth is that this public relations imbroglio shouldn't tarnish the university's longstanding reputation for academic excellence, nor should it dissuade prospective students from applying and attending. The education there "is what it is," as folks today are wont to say, regardless of what ranking a magazine's arbitrary formula assigns it.