Saturday, 20 Apr 2024

Columbia University Drops Out of U.S. News Rankings for Undergraduate Schools

Columbia University announced on Tuesday that its undergraduate schools would no longer participate in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, the first major university to refuse to supply information to the influential undergraduate guide for students and parents.

Columbia said it had become concerned about the “outsized influence” the rankings played in the undergraduate admissions process. “Much is lost in this approach,” the university said in an announcement signed by officials including Mary C. Boyce, Columbia’s provost.

Columbia also noted that the expected U.S. Supreme Court decision to end or curtail affirmative action “may well lead to a reassessment of admissions policies in ways we can’t even contemplate at this point.”

Columbia’s move comes after it dropped in the rankings released in September — to No. 18 from No. 2 — and after many prestigious law and medical schools, including Columbia’s, decided to boycott the listings by refusing to provide data to U.S. News. Calling the rankings unreliable and unfair, the schools criticized them for skewing educational priorities.

On Tuesday, U.S. News defended its ranking system as an important guide for students.

“Our critics tend to attribute every issue faced by academia — including the impending Supreme Court case mentioned in Columbia’s announcement — to our rankings,” Eric Gertler, the chief executive, said in a statement. “We have consistently stated that our rankings should be one factor in that decision-making process.”

U.S. News said it has listened to the critics. It announced in May that new methodology for undergraduate programs would give increased weight to a school’s success in graduating students from different backgrounds.

And in a move that suggested that it wanted to immunize itself against a larger exodus, U.S. News said that it would no longer rely on data that only colleges could provide. It also recently urged Miguel A. Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education, to demand that schools provide open access to their undergraduate and graduate school data.

Robert Kelchen, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said that while U.S. News had not fully described its new model, it could be an improvement, with better data.

“I think there are also questions about the accuracy of the data that colleges provide,” said Dr. Kelchen, who advises the Washington Monthly magazine on its rankings, which are viewed as an alternative to those produced by U.S. News. 

Colleges and universities have been critical of the U.S. News ranking system for decades, but every year virtually all submit their data for judgment.

It was a math professor at Columbia, Michael Thaddeus, who set off at least some of the backlash against the U.S. News rankings in early 2022 when he posted a 21-page analysis of the rankings, accusing his own school of submitting statistics that were “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading.”

Dr. Thaddeus said he had found discrepancies in the data that Columbia supplied to U.S. News, involving class size and percentage of faculty with terminal degrees — two of the metrics that U.S. News announced it was eliminating from its calculations.

The fallout from his accusations led Columbia to acknowledge that it had provided misleading data, and the school did not submit new data last year. Tuesday’s announcement makes that decision permanent.

In making the announcement, Columbia applauded the recent move by U.S. News to focus on the success of colleges in graduating students from different backgrounds. But Columbia also suggested that it was concerned about the inclusion of data from students in its general studies program, who tend to follow nontraditional academic paths.

Colorado College also withdrew from the rankings this year, along with Bard College, Rhode Island School of Design and Stillman College, a historically Black school in Alabama.

L. Song Richardson, the president of Colorado College, said in an interview on Tuesday that providing data to “a ranking system that we say does not accurately measure the educational experiences of our school, I felt, would make me complicit.”

She added, “I didn’t want the cognitive dissonance of speaking out of both sides of my mouth.”

She acknowledged that U.S. News had made some improvements, but said that they had not gone far enough. She criticized the annual questionnaire that U.S. News sends out asking schools to rank one another. “We call it the beauty contest,” she said.

After Yale dropped out of the law school rankings last year, dozens of other elite law and medical schools quickly followed — among them Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford — but most schools stayed in.

This time, with enrollment down, and many undergraduate schools hunting for students, a mass defection seems unlikely.

U.S. News says that more than 35 million people have consulted its rankings in the last 12 months, numbers that reflect its market dominance.

“U.S. News is going to keep producing these rankings,” Dr. Kelchen said.

Stephanie Saul is a national education reporter based in New York. @stefsaul

Anemona Hartocollis is a national correspondent, covering higher education. She is also the author of the book “Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever.” @anemonanyc

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