After a Columbia University professor exposed inaccurate data submitted to US News and World Report’s Top Universities Rankings, doubts were cast about the validity of data provided by other leading universities and about the classification system as a whole.
Columbia was originally listed at No. 2 in the 2022 Top Universities Rankings. However, the school took of to participate in next year’s rankings after math professor Michael Thaddeus exposed inflated statistics misrepresenting Columbia’s faculty, tuition spending and class sizes in a long post. US News has since downgraded the school from its 2022 list and Thaddeus said he doubts Columbia is alone in falsifying its numbers.
“I think it’s a widespread problem,” he said. “I’m sure the ones that are revealed are just the tip of the iceberg.”
A former Columbia student filed a court case July 12 alleging that thousands of students have been harmed by the university’s faulty data. According to the complaint, the students were misled by erroneous statistics leading to Columbia’s rankings and otherwise would not have applied or paid college tuition.
This is not the first time that university rankings have been the subject of controversy. Nearly 50 universities have misstated data since 2018, according to US News. Earlier this year, the University of Southern California took of his graduate school of education out of the rankings, citing inaccurate data. And in 2021, the former Temple University Business School Dean was sentenced of electronic fraud for submitting false data ranking the university’s online MBA program #1 for four consecutive years.
“US News’ mission is to provide students with accurate and detailed data to help them in their school search. We rely on schools to accurately report their data and ask academic leaders to verify this data. We will downgrade schools if they misreport data that leads to an inflated ranking or if their officials fail to substantiate data that US News has reason to believe is inaccurate,” US News wrote in a statement.
While Thaddeus said he’s heard from a handful of employees at other universities who believe data fraud is happening at their schools as well, he added that concrete evidence is needed to back up these kinds of claims. “What I did cannot be replicated immediately, it takes someone who knows the school inside out,” he said. “I spent several weeks working on it.”
After seeing Columbia’s lofty No. 2 spot this year, Thaddeus decided to start investigating the validity of his claims. “I became aware of this gap that was opening up between perception and reality,” he said. The professor used public school data, such as its class directory, to compare with statistics provided to US News. “The institution gave me the rope to hang them with.”
There are no checks and balances on university rankings
Going forward, universities need to work harder to disseminate accurate information, according to Thaddeus. Since the data provided to US News is self-reported, with no checks and balances, he thinks a third-party auditor should be involved.
“I would also like them to just drop out of the rankings,” he said, arguing that linear rankings are a simplistic way of expressing schools’ varying merits. “Top-ranked universities need to show leadership. They have the least to lose from being downgraded because their reputation and resources are so high.
Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, currently the highest-ranked school by US News, criticized the ranking system in a Washington Post editorial last year. “Those of us who understand the flaws in the rankings need to call them out, even when, indeed especially when, we finish at the top,” Eisgruber wrote.
In a statement issued in May, Eisgruber detailed the flaws in the ranking system and called on universities to use different methods of reporting data. His quoted post Breakup Ranks, a book written by anti-classification lawyer Colin Diver, former director of Reed College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Diver, however, said Eisgruber should go further.
“Princeton’s president publicly condemned the ranking, but he didn’t say ‘Princeton is therefore withdrawing from the US News ranking,'” Diver said in a phone interview.
Most cases of erroneous statistics in college rankings are revealed by schools’ self-reporting, according to Diver, who believes many other cases of spurious data simply haven’t been exposed. US News probably doesn’t want to spend its resources on independent auditing and is concerned that schools won’t cooperate with the requirement to audit data to qualify for the rankings, he said.
“What we need is for a school of Columbia’s stature to publicly say ‘we don’t believe these rankings,'” Diver said. “The best schools could credibly say that and not lose a single candidate.”
However, he thinks the competitive nature of higher education prevents selective universities from doing so. “They compete for the best students, faculty, scholarships, and most importantly, they fiercely compete for status,” Diver said. “They want to be seen as the best. US News has codified what is best, and there is a hidden fear that they will suffer if they pull out.
Columbia and the rest of the top 10 schools ranked by US News did not respond to requests for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Christopher Eisgruber’s statement was written in response to recent news about Columbia’s misreporting of data. It was originally released on May 24, before Columbia was downgraded.