Let’s dispense with an obvious myth right at the outset: rankings of American universities, colleges, law schools and the rest are garbage, and always have been. The criteria is subjective, the weighting is subjective, the scores and numbers are a witch’s brew, and who know what kinds of lobbying and other means of persuasion go into the determinations of the likes of U.S. News Report? Nevertheless, schools use these bogus things to entice applications and alumni donations, and they work….because people believe what they want to believe.
Columbia, generally regarded as a second-tier Ivy League university, has risen from 18th place in 1988, to a stunning 2nd place this year, with only Princeton and, Harvard and MIT ahead of it. THAT should swell the endowment! However, an ethical (and luckily for him, tenured) professor of mathematics, Michael Thaddeus exposed his own university’s skulduggery in rigging its ranking.
In his “An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking,” the professor points out one manipulated set of numbers after another. Amusingly, he remind readers that 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.” Indeed.
In the extensive examination of how Columbia fudged its way to #2, Professor Thaddeus concludes,
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 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. …
Naturally, Columbia stands by its representations.