Columbia University was demoted from No. 2 to No. 18 in the influential US News & World Report college rankings Monday, about eight months after a Columbia math professor accused the university of fudging some key statistics used in the rankings.
The downgrade comes after Columbia announced that it was looking into the professor’s allegations and said that it was withdrawing from the rankings. On Friday, the eve of the new rankings, Columbia said that it had submitted data on class size and the number of faculty members with advanced degrees using outdated or incorrect methodologies.
US News put the blame for the lowered ranking on Columbia officials in a statement Monday, saying that it “requires a high-level academic official to attest to any data submitted by institutions directly.”
Columbia apologized for the errors, saying, “We deeply regret the deficiencies in our prior reporting and are committed to doing better.”
Almost every year, US News announces that it has found discrepancies in data submitted by universities for the rankings. But Columbia, an Ivy League institution, is probably the most storied and prestigious university in recent memory to be accused of providing incorrect data.
US News has not said whether the mistakes in the data were intentional or not, and Columbia said they were a result, at least in part, of the “complexity” of the reporting requirements.
But the inaccuracies have created a perception of cheating or dissembling around Columbia’s ranking — and may have undermined the broader rankings system by revealing how easy it is for universities to get away with submitting incorrect data. After the math professor, Michael Thaddeus, accused Columbia of submitting bad data, US News responded that it relied on the integrity of universities and did not have an independent auditing system for the data.
Some experts said that there also seemed to be a vindictive element to Columbia’s demotion. In his original critique, Thaddeus made a big point of saying that he believed Columbia’s rise in the rankings had been too quick to be true. He noted that the university ranked 18th in 1988 and vaulted to eighth in just one year, in large part because the rankings methodology had been changed to rely more on data and less on a survey of reputation among university presidents.
“I think that’s exactly what was going to happen once they realized they were lied to,” said Jed Macosko, a physics professor at Wake Forest University. Macosko is the head of AcademicInfluence.com, a rival company of academics and data scientists who say they are working on “an objective, nongameable influence-based ranking.”
“I wish that US News weren’t so powerful because it makes for bad dynamics,” Macosko said. “So if the person in charge wants you to be No. 18, they can jiggle the US News rankings until you are No. 18.”
US News said that it was providing what it called a consumer service “with the highest level of integrity, for high school graduates and their families to make decisions.” Because of Columbia’s refusal to provide data this year, US News said it had assembled data from outside sources for the new ranking.
“We are not confident in the accuracy of the data Columbia submitted and did not use any prior year data,” US News said. “For the 2022-2023 rankings, Columbia’s rank was calculated with data from the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, data from the peer assessment survey conducted by US News, the College Scorecard and assigned competitive set values for data where no third-party data exists. Based on those data sets, Columbia ranks No. 18 in national universities.”
This year, the rankings were still predictable. Princeton University ranked first, Massachusetts Institute of Technology was second, while Harvard University, Yale University, and Stanford University tied for third. Last year, Columbia was second to Princeton and tied with Harvard and MIT.
Columbia revealed Friday that it had confirmed errors in two of the metrics questioned by Thaddeus: class size and the percentage of professors with the highest degrees in their field.
“While many of Columbia’s undergraduate classes have long had under 20 students,” the university said, “the prior methodologies used resulted in overreporting the number of classes with under 20 students and underreporting of classes with between 20 and 29 students.”
On so-called terminal degrees, Columbia said that while the majority of faculty had always had the highest possible degrees, the definition of terminal degrees used in the US News rankings “in certain disciplines are different from Columbia’s requirements, resulting in some overreporting.”