Do college rankings matter? After Columbia's U.S. News fall, they seem to | Mary Chao (2023)


It's the Olympics for nerdy geeks.

The annual U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings were published Monday with some big surprises in the prestigious national universities category. Private non-Ivies Duke University and Northwestern University tied at No. 10. New Jersey's Princeton University reigned supreme at the No. 1 spot while last year's No. 2, Columbia University in Manhattan, tumbled 16 spots to 18.

Ouch. That's a mighty drop for the Ivy League university.

Columbia's fall from rankings grace comes after the university admitted it miscalculated some data — things like average class sizes, measures of faculty quality and graduation rates — submitted for consideration in the annual rankings. That data was inaccurate, according to findings in a report published earlier this year by Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia professor of mathematics

Columbia attempted to withdraw from the rankings this year and did not submit data for consideration. But in a power move, U.S. News decided to use publicly available data, which has also been questioned, to rate the university, and included Columbia.

That checkmate was all in the name of the high-stakes game of college rankings. Each year, U.S. News & World Report releases its ranking of colleges in the United States, which are seen by some as a premier arbiter of academic prestige. Publicly, college administrators around the country say the rankings do not matter. And yet, many institutions tout their scores if they earn high marks in the rankings.

As tuition plus room and board exceeds $80,000 at some of the nation's most elite colleges and universities, the U.S. News rankings are one of the ways families gauge whether the investment is worth the cost. That is, if their child can even get into Ivy League universities — Columbia's acceptance rate was a mere 3.6% for its undergraduate college this year. Of all of the valedictorians and debate club presidents that apply from around the world, 96 out of 100 will be rejected.

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This year's top ranked institutions in the U.S. News rankings boast similar statistics. Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University are the top three, according to the report. That's followed by Stanford University, Yale University and University of Chicago in the national universities category.

The elite college admissions process now is pure madness. More on that in a bit.

'Rankings do matter'

On the Columbia University campus this week, the rankings drop was all the talk, said Callie Updike, 17, a sophomore studying film and English.

At first, Updike thought the mishap was somewhat funny. But when the actual rankings came out, reality sunk in.

"For me, who is low income, getting into Columbia and being able to tell people I'm going to the No. 2 school means something," Updike said. "Rankings do matter."

For overachievers, the guide is the Bible, influencing students where to apply and where to enroll. Its information fuels an increasingly intense — if not maddening — admissions process for students seeking spots at the nation's most elite schools.

To the naysayers who eschew rankings, consider the type of student aiming for Ivies. Updike was a straight A student who was involved in theater at Holley High School in rural western New York. She worked hard her entire life at her goals, which included gaining admission to a top school.

Full disclosure: My daughter is a junior at Barnard College, the undergraduate women's college of Columbia University. She is also the type of young person who would give her 110% to her studies and extracurricular activities, passing up social events to work on school projects. Getting into a top college is akin to an athlete winning a gold medal. The masses embrace the competition of athletes. Yet when it comes to academics, competition is viewed as elitist.

Columbia is not the first university to have given false numbers to U.S. News, but it is the highest ranking school to admit discrepancies. George Washington University also had accounting issues in 2012.U.S. News removed GWU from its list after learning that the school submitted inflated data.

Columbia said it overstated the number of undergraduate classes with less than 20 students and the number of full-time faculty with terminal degrees like the Ph.D. U.S. News published that 83% of Columbia’s classes in fall 2020 had fewer than 20 students, the highest among the top 50 universities.

That's the kind of statistic that a sharp-eyed parent would home in on when making college decisions. And it hit close to home.

This year, tuition, room and board exceeds $85,000 at Columbia. My daughter passed up significant merit scholarships at other institutions to attend the prestigious university, as did many of her peers. But for my daughter — a smart, Caucasian Asian, suburban public school kid, getting into an elite school is like winning the lottery. Students like her are a dime a dozen. Elite schools favor students with a hook — whether they are exceptional athletes, are members of an underserved minority or are from rural areas, low-income or first-generation. And, let's be honest, the children of potentially wealthy donors or well-connected business and civic leaders catch admissions officers' attentions, too.

InThe American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2019report from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 15% of freshman survey respondents said that rankings were important in deciding on a college. The top reasons include the school's good academic reputation at 63% and that graduates get good jobs at 55%.

"Rankings matter because people put value on them," said Jacque Discenza, private college counselor and founder of Sarphatie Education.

Donors and students watch the rankings as do parents, Discenza said. For the segment of high achieving high school students, a school's ranking is a major deciding factor, she added. The recent revelation shows just how flawed the rankings process is as U.S. News relies on colleges to accurately report the numbers, Discenza said.

'It's all just very arbitrary'

In an ideal world, college rankings should be secondary to other considerations. But in reality, degrees earned from top institutions do tend to open doors along certain career paths. White-shoe law firms and blue-chip financial firms always seek candidates with pedigrees and connections. Students apply to elite schools thinking that degree will benefit them in competitive fields. Of course, many businesses and industries do not weigh the prestige of schools.

Rankings were not a consideration for Kathleen McClusky Stahl, 56, of Hamilton, New York, when her daughter applied to colleges in 2020. Molly Stahl is now a junior at Barnard majoring in sociology.

"We knew Columbia was a top school. And I don’t think anything has changed since she applied," McClusky Stahl said. "It’s all just very arbitrary. Molly dreamt of going to Columbia since middle school — she always wanted to be in a city, especially New York City."

Sadly, colleges are a business. They are in the business of selling prestige and scarcity. The average acceptance rates at Ivy caliber colleges and universities — typically under 5% — illustrate just how difficult it is to get in. A No. 2 rank means research funding, alumni support and business donations.

People like winners — look no further than schools that spend on sports programs and athletes to attract boosters.

Consider Rutgers University's entry into the Big Ten conference. Itsathletics departmentrecorded a$73 million deficitin the last fiscal yearasspending reachedanall-time high of $118 million amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Studentsand taxpayers had to coverthe gap.Will boosters continue to fund an administration that dropped the ball?

As for Columbia's fiasco dropping from No. 2 to No. 18, the major public humiliation will cost dearly. Time will tell how quickly the school recovers its reputation.

"I love my school and I'm very proud," Updike said. "At the same time, the administration did things that students are not very proud of."

Mary Chao is a columnist who covers the Asian communities and real estate in North Jersey. Email

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