As you’ve probably learned from Fizz by now, Columbia University, purportedly the second-place college in the country and the finest college in New York State, has fallen to 18th place in the US News and World Report ranking of the nation’s top universities. This coup makes our little college in the woods the fifth-highest-ranked school in the Ivy League. Yet Dartmouth should not be too hasty in celebrating its rival’s fall from grace. Indeed, the discovery that brought about Columbia’s fall undermines the reputation of each one of our nation’s most prestigious schools.
The collapse in Columbia’s ratings is the result of revelations surrounding its falsification of data submitted to US News for its annual college rankings. Columbia Professor of Mathematics Michael Thaddeus submitted analyses that questioned the data regarding class size, acceptance rate, and other factors that the school had submitted to US News and World Report. One wonders what prompted Professor Thaddeus to turn on his school so directly. All available evidence suggests no ulterior motive, and so he must be commended for his bravery and integrity. Later, Columbia admitted errors in its data and issued a formal apology. Whether its admittance of guilt is a signal of integrity or an attempt to simply lessen backlash in the face of irrefutable evidence this author shall leave up to the reader. The same goes for the University having yet to banish Thaddeus to the academic equivalent of Cocytus for his treachery.
The exposure of Columbia only confirms what we all already knew about academia. For decades, top universities have artificially inflated their statistics in order to enhance their reputations, attract more applicants, and draw more donations. Such underhanded methods allow “top” universities to maintain their status even while their academics and amenities stagnate. Faced with rising costs of college, students question whether they should attend an Ivy League school far away or attend an in-state school for a far lower price. The equation tilts more in the balance of the state school when one considers that the quality of their academics has increased dramatically in the past decades and that they have spent heavily on improving amenities like dorms and food. Anecdotally, this author can report that the dorm he lived in over the summer at the George Washington University was far superior to anything at Dartmouth, despite our school having more money and more space to build. So what is a venerable institution like Columbia to do? Spend its massive endowment on features that attract students? Of course not; that would require taking from the all-important swimming pool of money that is the endowment! So instead, the school makes the logical decision to inflate its scores, making itself appear better than it actually is, and play on its reputation to make up for its shortcomings. If Columbia can do it and rise from 18th place in 1988 to 2nd place in 2021 (it is fittingly ironic that it is now back in 18th), then one can be sure that other schools are only hiding their skulduggery better.
Of course, Columbia, its fellow Ivies, and the “Ivy+” schools all provide an amazing education, and their graduates go on to achieve great success. However, it is clear that such schools are clearly playing on their historical reputation and fudging their data in order to maintain their image of superiority. They do this rather than make actual improvements to their education and living standards as, again, that would require that they tap into the all-important endowment, praise be its holy name. Students in the Ivy League should be furious that the hard work they did to get accepted and the money that they, or more likely their parents, pay to stay here is not reciprocated by equally hard work on the part of the administration that runs their school. Rather than lie to improve their ranking, those in charge should instead spend their well-compensated time working continuously to create an environment that allows students to reach ever-greater heights.