It’s a delicious ivory tower scandal: After one of its own professors caught Columbia University submitting dubious numbers to US News and World Report’s annual college guide, the Ivy League university’s ranking plunged from number 2 to number 18 among national universities this year.
But the episode actually raises far more questions about the magazine, and its closely watched ranking, than it does about Columbia. Rankings so arbitrary that they can change that drastically overnight — this is what anxiety-wracked high school seniors and status-seeking parents treat like gospel?
“If any institution can decline from No. 2 to No. 18 in a single year, it just discredits the whole ranking operation,” said Michael Thaddeus, the Columbia math professor who sussed out what the university later said was a miscalculation in the data it provided to US News.
Here’s how Columbia should respond to its demotion: stop participating in the rankings and lead an effort among other top-tier colleges to boycott them. Whatever value the rankings might have provided — emphasis on might — is far outweighed by the harm they’ve done to American higher education as a whole.
The magazine’s rankings debuted in 1983. US News defends them as a kind of consumer guide that gives parents objective guidance on one of the biggest financial decisions they’ll ever make: where to educate their children.
Providing parents and students with more and better data about colleges is a worthy cause, and to a certain extent colleges have only themselves to blame for creating a void that US News filled. Publishing rankings is also a common feature in the news industry: the Globe does the same with its workplace rankings.
It’s the particular way that US News applied the faux precision of such lists to higher education that has caused so much stress for students and distorted the incentives for colleges themselves. Even though everyone involved in the application process knows on some level the rankings are bogus — that it’s impossible to come up with one single set of datapoints to weigh West Point against Amherst, or UMass against Caltech — they still prey on our insecurities in a country where college education has always been linked to class.
And as US education secretary Miguel Cardona pointed out in a speech last month, the steps colleges take to rise in the rankings often exacerbate inequalities. “Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for all Americans. That system of ranking is a joke!”
Reed College in Oregon famously refuses to participate in the US News rankings. For many other colleges, though, the risk of falling a few notches is too great.
But that’s where Columbia comes in. Ivy League schools and a few other premier institutions do have a choice; Harvard and MIT would still get plenty of applicants regardless of what US News says about them. If they stopped providing data to US News, the magazine might assign them a rank anyway, as it does with Reed. But it would also give other colleges some cover to end their participation.
Whatever the magazine (and its many imitators) may have intended, it would be hard to argue that consumers of American higher education have it better now. To the contrary, the era of the US News ranking has coincided with skyrocketing costs of higher education, growing student debt, and the proliferation of test-prep companies and college consultants.
There’s still a need for transparency and accountability from colleges — something they’ve too often resisted. But the US News rankings have cast their spell for too long and have warped higher education too much. Columbia and its peer institutions could turn an embarrassing episode into a boost to all higher education if they simply stopped playing along in these farcical ranks.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.