Four months after Columbia Mathematics Professor Michael Thaddeus accused Columbia of using false information to secure its #2 ranking from U.S. News & World Report, the University has announced it will not submit undergraduate data for next year’s rankings.

Editor’s note: Wording in this article has been modified from its initial publishing to reflect the situation more accurately. Additionally, information from a Columbia spokesperson has been added.

In a statement Thursday, Provost Mary Boyce announced that Columbia will not submit data for CC, SEAS, or GS to U.S. News & World Report in time for next year’s rankings. The full text of the statement can be found below. 

While this year, the University was ranked No. 2 on U.S. News’s Best National Universities list, it will not be present among the 2023 rankings published this coming September. The news comes four months after Professor of Mathematics Michael Thaddeus published a 21-page investigative report on the rankings, questioning their objectivity and validity as well as claiming the data submitted by Columbia in order to obtain its #2 ranking was “inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading.” 

Professor Thaddeus has since raised concerns about the University’s decision not to submit data to U.S. News, telling The New York Times he did not believe Columbia had given ​“any substantive responses to the concrete issues [he] brought up.” Specifically, in order to be considered for U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, universities must submit data covering a myriad of categories, including class sizes, student-to-faculty ratio, and instruction spending, which the publication then scores on a weighted system to determine their rank. Thaddeus’s report expressed suspicion that Columbia may have misreported data in a number of these categories, including its average undergraduate class sizes, the percentage of its faculty who are full-time, its faculty-to-student ratio, the average level of education among faculty members, and its spending on instruction. 

At the time of the report’s initial publication in February, Provost Mary C. Boyce said the University had “immediately embarked on a review of [its] data collection and submissions process,” which ultimately led to Thursday’s announcement that the University would not be participating in next year’s rankings altogether. A Columbia spokesperson cited this lengthy internal process as the main reason for the University’s inability to submit. The same spokesperson also told Bwog that the option to submit data to U.S. News remains available for Columbia’s graduate schools.

Most of the discrepancies noted in Thaddeus’s report stem from the fact that Columbia has not participated in the Common Data Set initiative, a coordinated effort from the College Board, U.S. News, and Peterson’s in which universities commit to using standardized guidelines when collecting and submitting the extensive data considered in the U.S. News rankings. While most of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 universities participate in the initiative, Columbia was one of just eight schools that opted out, choosing to keep their process of collecting and interpreting data private. Notably, Boyce also announced within her Thursday statement that Columbia will publish a Common Data Set this year to support parents and prospective students as they navigate the college decision process. However, Professor Thaddeus expressed concern that this decision was too little, too late, telling The New York Times that the University’s choice not to publish past years’ data was suspicious considering publishing the data could reveal “whether their misrepresentations were intentional or unintentional.” 

Below, Bwog outlines eight key issues from Professor Thaddeus’s report: 

  • Methodology: Until Mary Boyce’s announcement on Thursday, Columbia did not participate in the Common Data Set initiative, and did not publicly share the guidelines it used when submitting data for consideration to U.S. News & World Report’s 2022 ranking. Because of this, there is no way to determine exactly how the University came up with the allegedly inflated figures it submitted. In his report, Thaddeus implies this lack of transparency is cause for further suspicion that the University may have intentionally misreported its data in order to receive a higher ranking.
  • Class size: In its submission to the 2022 rankings, Columbia claimed that 82.5% of its undergraduate courses have fewer than 20 students, and only 8.9% have greater than 50 students. However, using his own methodology (considering all undergraduate courses and only the graduate courses open to undergraduate students), Thaddeus estimated that the real percentages are closer to 62.7–66.9% and 10.6–12.4%, respectively. 
  • Faculty education levels: The University claimed that 100% of its full-time faculty hold a terminal degree, the highest degree applicable to their academic field. However, Professor Thaddeus found that out of the 958 full-time undergraduate faculty members listed in the Columbia College Bulletin, 66 do not hold terminal degrees. 
  • Full-time faculty: In order to be considered for U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings, Columbia voluntarily submits data on the percentage of its faculty that is full-time. However, under federal law, the University must also report this data to the government. Thaddeus found significant discrepancies in these two reports. Specifically, while Columbia reported to U.S. News that 96.5% of its non-medical faculty are full-time, in the same year, the University reported to the federal government that this number was just 74.1%. 
  • Student-to-faculty ratio: The University reported to U.S. News that it has a student-faculty ratio of 6:1. However, Thaddeus—who warns that ratio is incredibly complicated to calculate in the first place—estimates the true ratio is likely closer to 11:1. 
  • Instruction spending: Columbia claimed, both to U.S. News and to the federal government, that it spent $3.1 billion on instruction-related expenses in 2020—over $100,000 per student. However, Thaddeus says it’s unclear exactly how all of that money was actually spent. As Thaddeus’s report points out, Columbia’s own consolidated financial statement puts this number at closer to $2.06 billion. To account for the discrepancy, Thaddeus suggests the University may have intentionally misrepresented some unrelated expenses, such as patient care, as “instruction expenses” to U.S. News in order to receive a higher ranking. Notably, Thaddeus implies the University has a significant incentive to cherry-pick the highest possible number to submit to U.S. News & World Report since instruction spending is a major scoring category for the rankings.
  • Research spending: Columbia claims—both publicly and in its submission to U.S. News & World Report—to spend over $1 billion annually on research, but reported to the federal government that it spent only $763 million in 2021.
  • Graduation rates: For the 2022 ranking, Columbia reported that 96% of its undergraduates graduate within six years. However, while this is true for non-transfer students, transfer students have significantly lower graduation rates. Only about 85% of transfer students graduate within 6 years of starting college, which is unusual among similarly-ranked universities.

Over the last three decades, Columbia has steadily risen among U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, debuting at #18 in 1988 and peaking last year at #2. The University’s decision to not participate in the rankings is one of several similar actions at other institutions in recent years, including the University of Southern California, Emory University, and Claremont McKenna College, all of which were also accused of misrepresenting or deliberately falsifying data for the rankings. While it is currently unknown if the University will resume its annual submissions to U.S. News & World Report, Thaddeus did not hesitate to issue his own verdict, writing in his report, “No one should try to reform or rehabilitate the ranking. It is irredeemable.”

Provost Boyce’s statement on June 30:

A few months ago, a member of our faculty, Professor Michael Thaddeus, raised questions regarding the accuracy of some of the data the University submitted to U.S. News and World Report for its annual ranking of undergraduate universities. Columbia leaders take these questions seriously, and we immediately embarked on a review of our data collection and submissions process.

In light of the work underway, we will refrain from submitting to U.S. News and World Report this year. The deadline for that submission is July 1. Given the extensive analysis required to review the data and ensure it complies with U.S. News methodologies, we cannot complete our work with the appropriate care within that timeframe.

Columbia has long conducted what we believed to be a thorough process for gathering and reporting institutional data, but we are now closely reviewing our processes in light of the questions raised. The ongoing review is a matter of integrity. We will take no shortcuts in getting it right.

To help support prospective students and their families as they consider college choices, we plan to publish a Common Data Set this fall that will provide a useful profile of the extraordinary undergraduate experience at Columbia, including much of the same information that the U.S. News university profiles impart.

While disappointed that we will not be able to submit this year, a thorough review cannot be rushed. We pledge that we will work quickly and decisively to complete our process and move forward.

Columbia Law School sculpture via Bwog Archives