US News & World Report's annual college rankings dropped on Monday, and one university in particular dropped significantly: New York City's Columbia, which fell from the No. 2 spot it held last year to No. 18—back to a spot it hadn't seen in more than 30 years, reports CBS News. What helped lead to this decline was Michael Thaddeus, one of the Ivy League school's own math professors, who in a blog post earlier this year questioned Columbia's "dizzying ascent" from the No. 18 ranking it held in 1988 to 2021's No. 2. Although Thaddeus noted it had been "gratifying" to see Columbia rise through the ranks over the decades, something about the school's "extraordinary rise" bothered him.
He dug into the data further, and found "several of the key figures supporting Columbia's high ranking are inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading." Those erroneous figures include the school claiming that 100% of its faculty held "terminal" degrees (i.e., the highest degree possible in individual fields), when in truth Thaddeus discovered that two-thirds of the 1,000 faculty members he reviewed hadn't gone further than a bachelor or master's degree. On Friday, Provost Mary Boyce released a statement admitting the school had erred on the faculty degree numbers—the school now says 95.3% of its faculty have terminal degrees—and on class size. Columbia had previously reported that 80% of its undergrad classes had fewer than 20 students; the real figure is closer to 60%.
"We deeply regret the deficiencies in our prior reporting and are committed to doing better," Boyce says, adding that the university didn't submit its own data this year to US News while it reviewed what was going on. That left the magazine to rank Columbia using US Department of Education data, supplemented by info from the online College Scorecard and a peer assessment survey, among other sources. The New York Times uses Columbia as an example to point out a deeper issue in the competitive college-admissions environment: that the magazine's "highly influential rankings ... can be easily manipulated." Thaddeus, who calls US News' process "shoddy," tells the paper, "If any institution can decline from No. 2 to No. 18 in a single year, it just discredits the whole ranking operation." More on that here, including schools' "love-hate" relationship with the magazine's rankings. (Read more Columbia University stories.)