What Columbia’s Departure Means for U.S. News Rankings

Will Columbia's messy breakup with U.S. News pave the way for other top colleges to retreat from the rankings?
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Updated on June 27, 2023
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  • Columbia University announced it will no longer participate in the U.S. News undergraduate rankings.
  • Top law and medical schools have boycotted the rankings, but Columbia becomes the first highly ranked undergraduate college to do so.
  • The university's recent rocky history with U.S. News renders this move rather predictable.
  • Columbia's boycott could cause other top universities to follow suit.

In a move equally shocking and predictable, Columbia University announced it will no longer submit data to U.S. News & World Report for the magazine's college rankings. Columbia thus becomes the first marquee institution to boycott undergraduate rankings, following the exodus of top law and medical schools last year.

Under normal circumstances, it might be tempting to assume Columbia's departure will pave the way for other top institutions to join the boycott, just as Yale Law School and Harvard Medical School set off last year's Pied Piper procession.

But Columbia's move, while symbolic, seems more like an inexorable conclusion to a saga that began just over two years ago.

Columbia Announces U.S. News Boycott

Columbia's June 6 announcement offered a logical rationale for the university's rankings withdrawal. As it did with a previous announcement on the U.S. News rankings, Columbia buried the lede, opting to instead open with a statement on the Common Data Set, which the university finally began submitting last year.

Those data sets, which are available for public consumption, along with an exploration of what makes Columbia unique, provide prospective students with an appreciation for the university far more nuanced than what magazine rankings can convey.

"We are convinced that synthesizing data into a single U.S. News submission for its Best Colleges rankings does not adequately account for all of the factors that make our undergraduate programs exceptional," the announcement said.

The university condemned the "outsized influence may play with prospective students," along with the magazine's distillation of the university's profile into a "composite of data categories."

At the same time, the university acknowledged its recent misadventures with U.S. News rankings, which began with a dubious professor's investigation into Columbia's rapid rise to No. 2 among national universities.

In 2022, Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia math professor, published a blog post claiming the university doctored data related to class size, faculty with terminal degrees, student-faculty ratio, and retention rates.

Reeling from the controversy, the university promised to investigate the matter and neglected to submit data ahead of the 2023 rankings while it sorted things out. In turn, U.S. News cast Columbia into the "unranked" abyss before eventually dropping it from its No. 2 spot to its current position at No. 18., last among its Ivy League brethren.

Law and Medical Schools Begin the Rankings Boycott

Columbia's statement also referenced its law and medical schools, which last year joined the boycott brigade.

Led by Yale, top law schools one by one began boycotting U.S. News, refusing to cooperate with the magazine's data collection. Harvard soon followed suit, along with Stanford, Penn, Columbia, Michigan, Duke, and several other law schools U.S. News regularly ranks among its top 20.

Law school officials claim the rankings incentivize them to recruit students with high standardized test scores, students who often can afford expensive test prep courses. As a result, incoming classes aren't as socioeconomically diverse as they could be.

Rankings also discourage public service careers and disregard loan forgiveness programs when calculating student debt loads.

Around the same time, leading medical schools, including Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Penn, and Stanford — all highly ranked by U.S. News — followed a similar path. Like law schools, medical schools cited problems with the magazine's misguided assumptions related to admissions criteria and career choices.

Undaunted, U.S. News proceeded to rank these professional schools without their participation, an exercise that resulted in few changes within the top tier for 2023-2024.

The undergraduate rankings, meanwhile, march merrily along despite the hubbub. In recent months, a few colleges have announced boycotts, including The Rhode Island School of Design, Colorado College, Bard College, and Stillman College.

But that's about it. We haven't seen that potential trend-setter, that Yale Law or Harvard Med equivalent at the undergraduate level whose departure would set the stage for a mass retreat.

Perhaps until now.

Possible Repercussions of Columbia's Decision

Had any other Ivy dropped out of the U.S. News rankings, a copycat convoy may have ensued.

Columbia's recent history and unique situation, however, diminish the symbolism of this move. The announcement comes as a predictable conclusion to a sordid situation, a messy divorce two years in the making. Still, other Ivies and similarly highly ranked institutions might use this occasion to follow suit, regardless of Columbia's backstory.

Should that happen, U.S. News likely would continue ranking colleges using publicly available information from sources such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the Common Data Set, though it will have to soldier on without its special sauce — the reputational survey that constitutes 20% of the rankings score.

In the meantime, the magazine is once again tinkering with its methodology, recently announcing a heightened focus on student diversity for its upcoming issue. It's not entirely clear how this new focus will manifest, but it's certainly curious timing given the imminent Supreme Court decision that might, as many are predicting, end race-conscious admissions.

Will universities be more carefully evaluated on student diversity measures just as maintaining diversity grows ever more difficult? Or will the conversation shift to economic rather than racial diversity?

Columbia referenced this potential reality in its rankings rebuke, suggesting the SCOTUS ruling "may well lead to a reassessment of admissions policies in ways we can't even contemplate at this point."Nor can we easily contemplate a world without college rankings, at least as they're currently constituted. U.S. News has held sway over higher education since 1982, becoming the tail wagging the industry's dog.

No more, said leading law and medical schools. Their undergraduate counterparts could soon fall in line right behind them.