What is the equivalent of “disbarred” or “defrocked” in the world of university rankings?
Without fanfare, US News & World Report announced that it had “unranked” Columbia University, which was tied at three for second place in the 2022 edition of Best Colleges, after being unable to verify the underlying data submitted. by the university.
The decision was published on the US News website a week after Columbia announced it was withdrawing from the upcoming 2023 ranking.
The Ivy League University then said it would not participate in the next ranking as it was investigating accusations by one of its own math professors that the No. 2 ranking was based on inaccurate data and misleading.
The biggest beneficiaries could be Harvard and MIT, which had shared second place with Columbia, and now have one less competitor. Princeton retains smoothing rights as No. 1.
Rankings are influential among students applying to college because it can be difficult to objectively compare schools and visit all of the campuses that interest them. College presidents have complained bitterly that the rankings are misleading, but few institutions have dropped the game.
Recent issues on US college campuses
- Registration crisis: New data shows that 662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs in the spring of 2022 compared to the previous year, a drop of 4.7%.
- President of Harvard: Lawrence S. Bacow, who led the university through the pandemic as well as an attack on its admissions policies, announced he would step down in 2023.
- Affirmative action: As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the legality of two race-conscious admissions programs, a lawyer who helped draft Texas’ abortion ban has offered a new avenue for critics of the affirmative action.
- Freedom of speech: A legal scholar who wrote that President Biden would appoint a ‘lesser black woman’ to the Supreme Court has been cleared for a new position in Georgetown after an investigation. He decided to quit anyway.
“I had hoped, I still hope, that this episode would draw much more attention to the weaknesses and failures of the filing system,” said Colin Diver, the former president of Reed College, who wrote a book , “Breaking Ranks”. on the college ranking industry. “Unfortunately, most of higher education, especially the elite part, publicly criticizes right-wing and left-wing rankings, yet they cooperate with them.”
Formula rankings tend to cement schools’ established reputations, Diver said.
In its Thursday blog post, US News said that after learning of the criticism in March, it asked Columbia to justify the data it reported, including information on the number of teaching faculty at full-time and part-time, number of full-time faculty with the highest degree in their field, student-faculty ratio, undergraduate class size, and educational expenditure.
“To date, Columbia has been unable to provide satisfactory responses to information requested by US News,” the message read.
Robert Morse, chief data strategist at US News, wrote in an email Friday that Columbia was no longer ranked in several categories — 2022 National Universities, 2022 Best Value Schools and 2022 Top Performers on Social Mobility — because these rankings used data from the university’s statistical surveys. The organization already has unranked universities, he said.
Columbia initially defended its statistics, but said in a statement on Friday that it “takes seriously the questions raised about our data submission” and would not submit further “undergraduate-related information” to US News while its own investigation was ongoing. .
“A thorough review cannot be rushed,” the university wrote. “While we are disappointed with US News & World Report’s decision, we consider it a matter of integrity and will not take any shortcuts to get it right.”
US News acknowledged that it relies on universities to verify the data they submit, which can be voluminous, and that it does not have the resources to conduct independent audits. But the decision to remove Columbia from the current rankings again raised questions about their overall accuracy.
In a separate blog post, Morse said US News publishes annual rankings for more than 11,500 schools and hundreds of individual programs. Typically, less than 0.1% a year tell US News they have bad data, he said.
He provided a list of several dozen schools who had admitted reporting incorrect data since 2019 and had been suspended for a year for their franchise.
Michael Thaddeus, the math teacher who was the first raised questions about Columbia data on its web page in February said the news pointed to flaws in a filing system that did not independently verify the underlying data.
“What is clear is that there is no third-party verification,” Dr. Thaddeus said. “At some point there has to be a third-party audit because this data is so important and so many people are making final decisions based on the data. It is not enough to say that this data is self-reported and that there is no way to verify it.
US News nodded to critics in its article on Columbia this week. “We continue to be concerned and are reviewing various options to ensure our rankings continue to maintain the highest levels of integrity,” he said.
Mr Diver said it is standard practice for US News to suspend schools for cheating or misrepresenting ranking data. But he said it usually happened when the school admitted to a misrepresentation or there was some kind of independent verification. “I guess they chose to do this because there were credible accusations that they had inflated that data on those different metrics,” he said.
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post in October in which he said that although Princeton topped the US News chart for 11 years, he was not a fan of the list.
“I am convinced that the rankings game is a bit of a mishegoss – a bit of a stupid obsession that hurts when colleges, parents or students take it too seriously,” he wrote. Because students felt pressured to get into top-tier schools, he said, schools focused their resources on moving up the rankings, to the detriment of goals such as student admissions. low-income more talented.
Alain Delaqueriere contributed to the research.