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US News dropped Columbia’s ranking, but its own methods are now questioned

Low Memorial Library on the campus of Columbia University in Manhattan in early March, 2020.HIROKO MASUIKE/NYT

U.S. News & World Report likes to say that it is performing a consumer service when it puts out its annual college rankings. But Monday, those ratings were again called into question after the publication demoted Columbia University to No. 18 from No. 2 in its newest annual list, after a monthslong controversy over whether the school had fudged its numbers.

The drop suggests that the highly influential rankings can be easily manipulated, since they rely heavily on data submitted by the universities that directly benefit from them.

Columbia’s No. 2 status was not questioned until one of its own math professors, Michael Thaddeus accused the school of submitting statistics that were “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading.” Last week, the university said in a statement that it had miscalculated some data.

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Columbia’s public humiliation raises questions for many parents and educational policymakers: Can the quality of a college be ranked by a single number, the way critics rate movies with stars? And should students choose where to go to college based on what has become a proxy for prestige?

U.S. News, which has been rating colleges since 1983, says that given the cost and importance of education, it is ever more important that parents and students have some kind of guide to quality schools.

Some experts say that though the numerical ranking system provides the satisfaction of a snap judgment, it exaggerates the differences among schools, and blurs more nuanced considerations, like whether a college is strong in certain fields or has good support systems and extracurricular activities.

The fixation with status that keeps the college rankings organizations — not just U.S. News but others like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Washington Monthly — in business may be overblown but it is not irrational, said Colin Diver, former president of Reed College, a rare school that does not participate in the rankings, and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, which does.

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“It’s based on a not-irrational premise that you’re more likely not only to get jobs, but you’re more likely to get noticed, you’re more likely to have good connections,” he said.

As for the schools themselves, he said, “They have a love-hate relationship with U.S. News. Publicly, they may be reluctant to say, ‘We love this ranking system, anti-intellectual as it is,’ but in fact, when your ranking goes up you tend to brag about it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.