“An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking” (2022)

“An Investigation of the Facts Behind Columbia’s U.S. News Ranking” (1)

Michael Thaddeus writes:

Nearly forty years after their inception, the U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities continue to fascinate students, parents, and alumni. . . . A selling point of the U.S. News rankings is that they claim to be based largely on uniform, objective figures like graduation rates and test scores. Twenty percent of an institution’s ranking is based on a “peer assessment survey” in which college presidents, provosts, and admissions deans are asked to rate other institutions, but the remaining 80% is based entirely on numerical data collected by the institution itself. . . .

Like other faculty members at Columbia University, I have followed Columbia’s position in the U.S. News ranking of National Universities with considerable interest. It has been gratifying to witness Columbia’s steady rise from 18th place, on its debut in 1988, to the lofty position of 2nd place which it attained this year . . .

A few other top-tier universities have also improved their standings, but none has matched Columbia’s extraordinary rise. It is natural to wonder what the reason might be. Why have Columbia’s fortunes improved so dramatically? One possibility that springs to mind is the general improvement in the quality of life in New York City, and specifically the decline in crime; but this can have at best an indirect effect, since the U.S. News formula uses only figures directly related to academic merit, not quality-of-life indicators or crime rates. To see what is really happening, we need to delve into these figures in more detail.

Thaddeus continues:

Can we be sure that the data accurately reflect the reality of life within the university? Regrettably, the answer is no. As we will see, several of the key figures supporting Columbia’s high ranking are inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading.


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And some details:

According to the 2022 U.S. News ranking pages, Columbia reports (a) that 82.5% of its undergraduate classes have under 20 students, whereas (e) only 8.9% have 50 students or more.

These figures are remarkably strong, especially for an institution as big as Columbia. The 82.5% figure for classes in range (a) is particularly extraordinary. By this measure, Columbia far surpasses all of its competitors in the top 100 universities; the nearest runners-up are Chicago and Rochester, which claim 78.9% and 78.5%, respectively.

Although there is no compulsory reporting of information on class sizes to the government, the vast majority of leading universities voluntarily disclose their Fall class size figures as part of the Common Data Set initiative. . . .

Columbia, however, does not issue a Common Data Set. This is highly unusual for a university of its stature. Every other Ivy League school posts a Common Data Set on its website, as do all but eight of the universities among the top 100 in the U.S. News ranking. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the runners-up mentioned above, Chicago and Rochester, are also among the eight that do not issue a Common Data Set.)

According to Lucy Drotning, Associate Provost in the Office of Planning and Institutional Research, Columbia prepares two Common Data Sets for internal use . . .

She added, however, that “The University does not share these.” Consequently, we know no details regarding how Columbia’s 82.5% figure was obtained.

On the other hand, there is a source, open to the public, containing extensive information about Columbia’s class sizes. Columbia makes a great deal of raw course information available online through its Directory of Classes . . . Course listings are taken down at the end of each semester but remain available from the Internet Archive.

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Using these data, the author was able to compile a spreadsheet listing Columbia course numbers and enrollments during the semesters used in the 2022 U.S. News ranking (Fall 2019 and Fall 2020), and also during the recently concluded semester, Fall 2021. The entries in this spreadsheet are not merely a sampling of courses; they are meant to be a complete census of all courses offered during those semesters in subjects covered by Arts & Sciences and Engineering (as well as certain other courses aimed at undergraduates). . . .

[lots of details]

Two extreme cases can be imagined: that undergraduates took no 5000-, 6000-, and 8000-level courses, or that they took all such courses (except those already excluded from consideration). . . . Since the reality lies somewhere between these unrealistic extremes, it is reasonable to conclude that the true . . . percentage, among Columbia courses enrolling undergraduates, of those with under 20 students — probably lies somewhere between 62.7% and 66.9%. We can be quite confident that it is nowhere near the figure of 82.5% claimed by Columbia.

Reasoning similarly, we find that the true . . . percentage, among Columbia courses enrolling undergraduates, of those with 50 students or more — probably lies somewhere between 10.6% and 12.4%. Again, this is significantly worse than the figure of 8.9% claimed by Columbia . . .

These estimated figures indicate that Columbia’s class sizes are not particularly small compared to those of its peer institutions. Furthermore, the year-over-year data from 2019–2021 indicate that class sizes at Columbia are steadily growing.


Thaddeus continues by shredding the administration’s figures on “percentage of faculty who are full time” (no, it seems that it’s not really “96.5%”), the “student-faculty ratio” (no, it seems that it’s not really “6 to 1”), “spending on instruction” (no, it seems that it’s not really higher than the corresponding figures for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined), “graduation and retention rates” (the reported numbers appear not to include transfer students).

Regarding that last part, Thaddeus writes:

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The picture coming into focus is that of a two-tier university, which educates, side by side in the same classrooms, two large and quite distinct groups of undergraduates: non-transfer students and transfer students. The former students lead privileged lives: they are very selectively chosen, boast top-notch test scores, tend to hail from the wealthier ranks of society, receive ample financial aid, and turn out very successfully as measured by graduation rates. The latter students are significantly worse off: they are less selectively chosen, typically have lower test scores (one surmises, although acceptance rates and average test scores for the Combined Plan and General Studies are well-kept secrets), tend to come from less prosperous backgrounds (as their higher rate of Pell grants shows), receive much stingier financial aid, and have considerably more difficulty graduating.

No one would design a university this way, but it has been the status quo at Columbia for years. The situation is tolerated only because it is not widely understood.

Thaddeus summarizes:

No one should try to reform or rehabilitate the ranking. It is irredeemable. . . . Students are poorly served by rankings. To be sure, they need information when applying to colleges, but rankings provide the wrong information. . . .

College applicants are much better advised to rely on government websites like College Navigator and College Scorecard, which compare specific aspects of specific schools. A broad categorization of institutions, like the Carnegie Classification, may also be helpful — for it is perfectly true that some colleges are simply in a different league from others — but this is a far cry from a linear ranking. Still, it is hard to deny, and sometimes hard to resist, the visceral appeal of the ranking. Its allure is due partly to a semblance of authority, and partly to its spurious simplicity.

Perhaps even worse than the influence of the ranking on students is its influence on universities themselves. Almost any numerical standard, no matter how closely related to academic merit, becomes a malignant force as soon as universities know that it is the standard. A proxy for merit, rather than merit itself, becomes the goal. . . .

Even on its own terms, the ranking is a failure because the supposed facts on which it is based cannot be trusted. Eighty percent of the U.S. News ranking of a university is based on information reported by the university itself.

He concludes:

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The role played by Columbia itself in this drama is troubling and strange. In some ways its conduct seems typical of an elite institution with a strong interest in crafting a positive image from the data that it collects. Its choice to count undergraduates only, contrary to the guidelines, when computing student-faculty ratios is an example of this. Many other institutions appear to do the same. Yet in other ways Columbia seems atypical, and indeed extreme, either in its actual features or in those that it dubiously claims. Examples of the former include its extremely high proportion of undergraduate transfer students, and its enormous number of graduate students overall; examples of the latter include its claim that 82.5% of undergraduate classes have under 20 students, and its claim that it spends more on instruction than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton put together. . . .

In 2003, when Columbia was ranked in 10th place by U.S. News, its president, Lee Bollinger, told the New York Times, “Rankings give a false sense of the world and an inauthentic view of what a college education really is.” These words ring true today. Even as Columbia has soared to 2nd place in the ranking, there is reason for concern that its ascendancy may largely be founded, not on an authentic presentation of the university’s strengths, but on a web of illusions.

It does not have to be this way. Columbia is a great university and, based on its legitimate merits, should attract students comparable to the best anywhere. By obsessively pursuing a ranking, however, it demeans itself. . . .

Michael Thaddeus is a professor of mathematics at Columbia University.

P.S. A news article appeared on this story. It features this response by a Columbia spokesman:

[The university stands] by the data we provided to U.S. News and World Report. . . . We take seriously our responsibility to accurately report information to federal and state entities, as well as to private rankings organizations. Our survey responses follow the different definitions and instructions of each specific survey.

Wow. That’s not a job I’d want to have, to be responding to news reporters who ask whether it’s true that your employer is giving out numbers that are “inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading.” Michael Thaddeus and I are teachers at the university and we have academic freedom. If you’re a spokesman, though, you can’t just say what you think, right? That’s gotta be a really tough part of the job, to have to come up with responses in this sort of situation. I guess that’s wha they’re paying you for, but still, it’s gotta be pretty awkward.


Did Columbia game the US News college rankings with sketchy data? ›

After much controversary surrounding university's ranking, Columbia Provost Mary Boyce admitted in a statement Friday the university had not given "complete accuracy" in its data. Two things Columbia admitted were reportedly incorrectly were its undergraduate class size data and that 100% of its faculty had a Ph.

Did Columbia University cheat its way to the top of the US News rankings? ›

In July, after acknowledging questions about its data reporting, Columbia was removed from the No. 2 spot on the U.S. News national university list and placed in the peculiar position of being unranked.

What is Columbia ranked in the world? ›

Columbia University is ranked #7 in Best Global Universities. Schools are ranked according to their performance across a set of widely accepted indicators of excellence. Read more about how we rank schools.

Why is Columbia unranked? ›

In July, U.S. News & World Report unranked Columbia University “from a number of rankings in the 2022 edition of Best Colleges (first published September 2021)” saying that the university “failed to respond to multiple U.S. News requests that the university substantiate certain data it previously submitted,” according ...

Why did Columbia ranking drop so much? ›

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.

Why did Columbia drop in US News rankings? ›

This week ,Columbia University dropped to the #18 from #2 in the U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings after admitting the University had submitted inaccurate data in earlier years.

Is Columbia harder than Harvard? ›

In 2021, Columbia edged past Princeton and Harvard to become the most competitive Ivy. However, with a current acceptance rate of 3.2%, Harvard is once again the hardest Ivy League school to get into.

What is the Columbia University Scandal? ›

Math professor Michael Thaddeus accused Columbia of using false data to rise up the college rankings. He tells Rachel Sharp why the real lesson from the scandal is that the ranking system must be scrapped.

Is Columbia harder to get into than Harvard? ›

Discover the 10 hardest colleges to get into in 2022 as well as what these schools look for during the admissions process. Jump to: Harvard.
Top 10 Hardest Colleges to Get Into.
SchoolLocationAcceptance Rate (Class of 2026)
1. HarvardCambridge, MA3.19%
2. ColumbiaNew York, NY3.73%
8 more rows

Why is Columbia so special? ›

Columbia is considered to be the most diverse college in the Ivy League – students attending the school can expect exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences, and there are many extracurricular groups dedicated to bridging connections among students of different backgrounds.

Is Columbia still prestigious? ›

It is one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence, seven of which belong to the Ivy League. Columbia is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Why is Columbia so popular? ›

Columbia offers you the intellectual environment of an Ivy League University, the sense of community you associate with the best small colleges and a home base from which to explore the most exciting city in the world.

Is Columbia still an Ivy? ›

Though there are many prestigious colleges across the United States which are mistaken for Ivy League schools, the eight original schools which make up the Ivy League are Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, ...

What percent of Columbia is white? ›

Ethnic Diversity
Black/African American4.2%
5 more rows
31 Dec 2020

Is Columbia a second tier Ivy? ›

There's probably some debate about which schools compose the next tier of Ivy League schools, but, based on my rankings, I would put Columbia, Penn, and Brown in the second tier. Their academic reputations aren't quite as established as those of the first-tier schools, and as a whole they're slightly less selective.

Is Columbia 100% need met? ›

Full Need. We meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need for all first-years and transfers pursuing their first degree. We continue to meet 100% of your demonstrated financial need for all four years of study. For an estimate of the need-based financial aid for which you may qualify, visit our Net Price Calculator.

Can I get into Columbia with a 3.7 GPA? ›

Still, if you are still curious about the lowest GPA to get into Harvard, students with a GPA somewhere around a 3.5 or 3.7 could get into Columbia if they are able to get a really strong SAT or ACT along with impressive extracurricular activities, strong personal essays and more.

Can I get into Columbia with a 4.0 GPA? ›

While Columbia University does not have any official requirements for how high your GPA should be, being a prestigious university, Columbia University typically admits students with a higher GPA. The average GPA of students accepted into Columbia University is 4.12 weighted GPA, and a 3.91 unweighted GPA.

Did Columbia decisions come out? ›

The college admissions season is flying by, and before you know it early admission decisions will be released.
SchoolEarly Decision Notification Date
Columbia UniversityMid-December
Cornell UniversityED: Mid-December
Dartmouth CollegeED: Mid-December
Davidson CollegeBy December 15
73 more rows
31 Oct 2022

What happened to Columbia U.S. News? ›

U.S. News, in turn, announced that it was taking Columbia out. But U.S. News changed its mind and reinstated Columbia in the rankings, which it announced on Monday. It said it had assembled information about Columbia on its own, relying on outside sources.

Is getting into Columbia a big deal? ›

One of the reasons Columbia is such an elite institution is because of its low acceptance rate. If it were simple to enter, it wouldn't have the same academic and social weight that it does! Although reported rates change from year to year, you can count on the acceptance rate to be at least 6% in any given year.

Is MIT better than Columbia? ›

Though MIT is an unbeatable academic brand across the world, Columbia University is the third best in the country as per US News.

Is MIT harder to get into than Columbia? ›

Therefore, the acceptance rate alone is not a good indicator that Columbia University in the City of New York is a better school or will be more difficult for you specifically to get into. On the flipside, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is easier to get into based on acceptance rate alone.

What is the easiest major at Columbia? ›

To help you determine your destiny at Columbia, we put together a list of our recommendations for majors that are the “easiest” in terms of fulfilling credit requirements.
  • Political Science, 29 points. ...
  • Philosophy, 30 points. ...
  • Psychology, 30 points. ...
  • Sociology, 30-31 points.
27 Jan 2016

What happened to Columbia's ranking? ›

On Monday, US News relegated Columbia from second to 18th in the latest rankings after the college admitted to “outdated and/or incorrect methodologies” in some of its previous claims about the quality of the education the university provides.

Who gets likely letters from Columbia? ›

“An institution may send a 'likely' probabilistic communication letter to a candidate (whether or not the applicant is a recruited athlete) only if the applicant has submitted all of the materials which the institution requires in order to make an admissions decision.”

Is Columbia worse than Cornell? ›

While still remaining the 17th best university in the nation, Cornell has now surpassed Columbia University, which saw a significant drop this year in rank, falling from No. 2 to No. 18. Columbia's downfall came after Columbia University Prof.

Is Columbia more prestigious than Penn? ›

For instance, Penn is ranked higher in business, education and medicine, Columbia is right behind them. Columbia is ranked higher in architecture, engineering and law with Penn on its heels. Both have graduated US Presidents and other heads of states.

What is the number 1 hardest college to get into? ›

Harvard ranked as the toughest school in the country to get into. It has a 5% acceptance rate, according to Niche. Stanford came in second on the list— with an acceptance rate of 5% as well. However, it accepts students with slightly lower test scores, Niche says.

What is the easiest Ivy League school to get into? ›

What's the easiest Ivy League school to get into? While all Ivy League schools are incredibly difficult to get into, Cornell University would likely be considered the easiest since it has the highest acceptance rate of all Ivies. As of fall 2021, Cornell's acceptance rate for first-year applicants was 9%.

What are 3 things Columbia is known for? ›

Colombia is famous for its aromatic Arabica coffee, superior quality emeralds, and exotic fruits. The Latin American country is also known for having a knack for throwing the best parties and its passionate people.

Why is Columbia so unequal? ›

To concentrate land, the Colombian government used tax incentives, which promoted inefficient land cultivation and hindered economic activity. Mechanisms for the concentration of land include the expulsion of peasant populations, which exacerbates the inequality in Colombia.

Why is Colombia important to the United States? ›

Colombia is a strong partner for the United States on law enforcement and security issues, including counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts.

Is Stanford a better school than Columbia? ›

Stanford. The class size, student/faculty-ratio, living costs and living quality (stanford is absolutely great!!) are much better. And stanford's admission rate is the most competitive ever in this year. It's much more competitive than CLS'.

Is Columbia or Princeton harder to get into? ›

Princeton Admission Statistics

Princeton University is one of the hardest schools to get into and has one of the lowest acceptance rates of any college in the world. Some might argue it's the hardest Ivy to get into, even though its current acceptance rate is not quite as low as Columbia or Harvard.

Is NYU or Columbia more prestigious? ›

Both NYU and Columbia are well known and prestigious. Columbia is part of the Ivy League which is considered very prestigious in the US and abroad. Because Columbia has a lower admission rate than NYU, there is a general perception that Columbia is more prestigious than NYU.

Why are people leaving Columbia? ›

Emigration from Colombia was determined mostly by security issues linked mainly to the Colombian armed conflict.

Is Columbia rich or poor? ›

Colombia is neither a poor nor a rich country. Income per person was by year 1999 roughly equal to the world average. According to the Andean Community, GDP per capita was US$1,487 in 1993, and rose to US$2,090 by 1995.
Colombia - Poverty and wealth.
GDP per Capita (US$)Country
5 more columns

Can a US citizen move to Colombia? ›

Relocating to Colombia

Colombia has 21 types of visas, but fortunately only a few categories apply to expatriates. Most expats will need the temporary work visa (TP-4). Expats can usually apply for a resident visa after living in Colombia for five years, if not before.

Is Columbia a wet campus? ›

Columbia proudly touts itself as a “dry campus”—drinking, possessing or distributing alcohol is strictly prohibited on campus and at college-sponsored events held off campus, unless the college's administration approves otherwise.

Is Columbia a top 10 school? ›

Columbia University's 2022-2023 Rankings

Columbia University is ranked #18 out of 443 National Universities. Schools are ranked according to their performance across a set of widely accepted indicators of excellence.

What are the lower Ivies? ›

(US) any of the Ivy League universities, such as Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, that are generally seen as less prestigious than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

What is the whitest county in America? ›

The four largest U.S. counties that had majority white populations in 2018 were Maricopa (Arizona), King (Washington), Middlesex (Massachusetts) and Palm Beach (Florida).

What is the whitest major city in America? ›

As the United States became more ethnically and racially diverse in the last decade, Portland did too — all while remaining the whitest big city in America. In 2020, 66.4% of city residents identified as non-Hispanic white, according to census data, down from 72.2% a decade earlier and 75.5% two decades before that.

Where is the whitest community in America? ›

15 largest US cities
2015 rankCityWhite percentage
1New York44.0%
2Los Angeles41.3%
11 more rows

What data did Columbia lie about? ›

Two things Columbia admitted were reportedly incorrectly were its undergraduate class size data and that 100% of its faculty had a Ph. D or terminal degree.

What is the happiest Ivy League? ›

How is each Ivy League school unique? Brown: It has the Open Curriculum and is known as the “happiest” Ivy. Columbia: It has the Core Curriculum and is located in the epicenter of the nation, New York City. Cornell: It is the largest Ivy and has a stellar Engineering program.

What is the prettiest Ivy League campus? ›

The Ivy League with the best campus is Princeton. It's reputed as having the prettiest campus. But beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Some people see Columbia as the most beautiful because of its gothic and classical buildings, while some will pick Cornell because of its breath-taking landscape.

Did Columbia release decisions? ›

Even the Ivy League schools pushed their regular decision release dates back to April 6th in 2021.
Here's When Students Can Expect to Receive Regular Admission Decisions.
SchoolRegular Decision Notification Date
Columbia UniversityMarch 31, 2022 after 7 pm ET
102 more rows
30 Mar 2022

Is Barnard as prestigious as Columbia? ›

U.S. News & World Report considers Barnard among the “most selective” universities. Still, Barnard's rate is higher than the average acceptance rate of Ivy League schools, which is 7%, and Columbia's, which is 5%.

Is Princeton harder than Columbia? ›

Those schools are all fairly equivalent in admissions criteria. Princeton has slightly higher scores than Columbia, Stanford has slightly lower. Princeton has a slightly higher admit rate than Columbia, Stanford has slightly lower.

Does getting a Columbia interview mean anything? ›

At Columbia, just like at the majority of undergraduate programs, the interview aspect of the application does not have a major impact on a student's chances of getting in, not getting offered an interview is not a reflection of the status of your application, and not being offered an interview will not hurt your ...

What is a C at Columbia? ›

Grades and notations
7 more rows

Can you get rejected after getting a likely letter? ›

Likely letters do not guarantee admission. They serve as indicators that the institutions that sent them are interested in admitting the recipients. Only a small percentage of competitive applicants receive likely letters. Early writes and acceptance letters, on the other hand, guarantee acceptance.


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