Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Columbia Math Professor Questions University's #2 U.S. News Ranking: 'A Web Of Illusions'

Michael Thaddeus (Professor of Mathematics, Columbia), An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking [Executive Summary]:

Like other faculty members at Columbia University, I have followed Columbia’s position in the U.S. News ranking of National Universities with considerable interest. It has been gratifying to witness Columbia’s steady rise from 18th place, on its debut in 1988, to the lofty position of 2nd place which it attained this year, surpassed only by Princeton and tied with Harvard and MIT.


Can we be sure that the data accurately reflect the reality of life within the university? Regrettably, the answer is no. As we will see, several of the key figures supporting Columbia’s high ranking are inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading. In what follows, we will consider these figures one by one.

In sections 2 through 5, we examine some of the numerical data on students and faculty reported by Columbia to U.S. News — undergraduate class size, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, percentage of faculty who are full-time, and student-faculty ratio — and compare them with figures computed by other means, drawing on information made public by Columbia elsewhere. In each case, we find discrepancies, sometimes quite large, and always in Columbia’s favor, between the two sets of figures.

In section 6, we consider the financial data underpinning the U.S. News Financial Resources subscore. It is largely based on instructional expenditures, but, as we show, Columbia’s stated instructional expenditures are implausibly large and include a substantial portion of the $1.2 billion that its medical center spends annually on patient care.

Finally, in section 7, we turn to graduation rates and the other “outcome measures” which account for more than one-third of the overall U.S. News ranking. We show that Columbia’s performance on some, perhaps even most, of these measures would plunge if its many transfer students were included. ...

In 2003, when Columbia was ranked in 10th place by U.S. News, its president, Lee Bollinger, told the New York Times, “Rankings give a false sense of the world and an inauthentic view of what a college education really is.” These words ring true today. Even as Columbia has soared to 2nd place in the ranking, there is reason for concern that its ascendancy may largely be founded, not on an authentic presentation of the university’s strengths, but on a web of illusions.

It does not have to be this way. Columbia is a great university and, based on its legitimate merits, should attract students comparable to the best anywhere. By obsessively pursuing a ranking, however, it demeans itself. The sooner it changes course, the better.

New York Daily News, Columbia Math Professor Questions Numbers Behind University’s #2 Ranking on U.S. News List:

A Columbia University math professor took his red pen to the numbers that vaulted his school to a second-place ranking on the U.S. News and World Report list of best colleges — and argues the digits don’t add up.

In a lengthy article posted last week, Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus sifted through data the university provided to U.S. News for its annual rankings and concluded “several of the key figures supporting Columbia’s high ranking are inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading.” ...

Columbia spokesman Scott Schell said the university “stand[s] by the data we provided to U.S. News and World Report.”

“We take seriously our responsibility to accurately report information to federal and state entities, as well as to private rankings organizations. Our survey responses follow the different definitions and instructions of each specific survey,” he added. ...

Thaddeus said he was inspired to take a closer look when Columbia landed a coveted second-place spot last fall — tied with Harvard and MIT and trailing only Princeton.

The first data point that caught Thaddeus’s attention was Columbia’s claim that 82.5% of its undergraduate courses enrolled fewer than 20 students — a higher percentage than any of the other schools in the U.S. News top 100.

“That just instantly triggered by bulls**t detector, because that just doesn’t conform to my experience at all,” Thaddeus said. ...

Thaddeus was also suspicious of the eye-popping $3.1 billion the university claimed to spend on “instruction” during the 2019-20 school year — another metric in the U.S. News rankings. “This is a truly colossal amount of money,” he wrote. “It is larger than the corresponding figures for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined.”

Combing through the university’s financial records, Thaddeus concluded that Columbia’s $3.1 billion number must have also included the cost of providing patient care in the university’s hospitals — an expense he argues would be a stretch to classify as “instructional.”

Other universities, including NYU, explicitly left the cost of patient care out of the sum they reported spending on instruction, Thaddeus added. ...

U.S. News chief data strategist Robert Morse said “we rely on schools to accurately report their data and ask academic officials to verify that data.”

Thaddeus hopes his critique can spur broader debate about the value of a ranking system that “gives this false sense of simplicity and clarity” to the complex, often subjective question of what makes a good college.

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