Columbia University drops from No. 2 to No. 18 in U.S. News ranking after admitting mistake

Columbia University, whose alumni include founding father Alexander Hamilton and former President Barack Obama, dropped to No. 18 in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings after admitting it had submitted inaccurate data in earlier years. 

The Ivy League institution had ranked No. 2 in the annual list in 2021, prompting one of its own professors to question the accuracy of the information the school had been supplying to U.S. News & World Report for its annual analysis, which was released on Monday. 

The magazine’s annual rankings provide far more than bragging rights to the top universities, as the standings are used as recruitment tools to convince high school students to apply to highly selective colleges. For its part, U.S. News & World Report said in a Sunday post that it “relies on schools to accurately report their data,” which includes information on issues ranging from graduation rates to the share of faculty holding terminal degrees, which indicates the highest degree available within specific fields.

Math professor raised questions

The accuracy of the latter datapoint was one the of the issues raised by Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus in a blog post earlier this year. Thaddeus noted that he had watched Columbia climb to “the lofty position of 2nd place,” prompting him to question how the university’s status had been able to achieve a climb from its perch at No. 18 in 1988.

Thaddeus dug into the numbers and concluded that “several of the key figures supporting Columbia’s high ranking are inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading.” For instance, he noted that Columbia had reported 100% of its full-time faculty held either a Ph.D. or terminal degree, but he pointed out that 66 out of almost 1,000 faculty members had bachelor’s or master’s degrees as their highest credentials. 

In a statement on Friday, Columbia Provost Mary Boyce said that its new analysis found that 95.3% of its full-time faculty hold terminal degrees. It also found inaccuracies in its earlier data for class size, an issue since colleges with smaller class sizes are ranked more favorably. About 60% of undergrad classes have fewer than 20 students, rather than the roughly 80% reported to U.S. News & World Report.

“[A]nything less than complete accuracy in the data that we report — regardless of the size or the reason — is inconsistent with the standards of excellence to which Columbia holds itself,” Boyce said in the statement. “We deeply regret the deficiencies in our prior reporting and are committed to doing better.”

Earlier this year, Columbia said it wouldn’t submit data to U.S. News & World Report for the current rankings as it reviewed its data. In a Monday statement to CBS MoneyWatch, the magazine said it ranked Columbia based on “data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, data from the peer assessment survey conducted by U.S. News, the College Scorecard and assigned competitive set values for data where no third-party data exists.”

Below are the top 20 national university rankings and their annual tuition, as reported by U.S. News & World Report on Monday: 

1. Princeton University: $57,410
2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $57,986
3. Harvard University: $57,261
3. Stanford University: $56,169
3. Yale University: $62,250
6. University of Chicago: $62,940
7. Johns Hopkins University: $60,480
7. University of Pennsylvania: $63,452
9. California Institute of Technology: $60,864
10. Duke University: $63,054
10. Northwestern University: $63,468
12. Dartmouth College: $62,430
13. Brown University: $65,146
13. Vanderbilt University: $60,348
15. Rice University: $54,960
15. Washington University in St. Louis: $60,590
17. Cornell University: $63,200
18. Columbia University: $65,524
18. University of Notre Dame: $60,301
20. University of California, Berkeley: $43,980 (out-of state) or $14,226 (in-state)
20. University of California, Los Angeles: $44,830 (out-of-state) or $13,804 (in-state)

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