The title “Ivy League” immediately draws associations of elitism, money, academic excellence and selectivity — and now, scandal as well. Established in 1754, Columbia University is one of the eight Ivies and has long been renowned for its status as one of the most prestigious schools in the United States. That was, of course, until the recent news revealing that Columbia University published misleading data to increase their rank in the annual U.S. News & World Report survey of American universities, rehashing the debate about what the societal value of a college education is worth and how it shapes students’ futures.
Dr. Michael Thaddeus, a professor of mathematics at the university, asserted in March that Columbia was undeserving of its No. 2 place in the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking. In a published analysis on his website, Thaddeus maintained that the data Columbia provided was “inaccurate, dubious or highly misleading.” Questioning Columbia’s rapid ascent from 18th place since its introduction to the list in 1988, Thaddeus compiled inconsistencies between the university’s official data and the actual affairs at the school. Eventually, he concluded that Columbia University’s data — including factors such as class size, university spending and student-to-faculty ratio — was more uncertain than it appeared.
Despite initially defending its data, Columbia recanted their previous statements, admitting their data was inaccurate and Dr. Thaddeus’ assessment was correct. Columbia dropped from 2nd place on the rankings list to 18th, and questions began to arise not only about their ethics, since academic honesty is such a cornerstone of the university, but about wider concerns regarding colleges and universities in America, including the value of rankings.
Columbia is certainly not the first to lie to increase its standing and absolutely will not be the last. Many students choose schools solely based upon their rank, believing that a number on a list is determinative not only of their intelligence, but of where they will wind up in life after graduation. Nearly every institution of higher education in the country, including Binghamton, publishes and praises these rankings as if they were gospel. It’s not hard to miss either — posted all over campus are signs declaring that Binghamton is the “Number one public school in New York.”
So, what determines the value of any education? As it turns out, arbitrarily ranking schools based upon presupposed data that may or may not be accurate informs us little about the actual value of an education. The process for the rankings is fairly simple — each university wanting to be included sends in their own data, and the U.S. News & World Report then calculates where schools fall based on their own weights of what matters. Graduation and retention rates, based in part on a peer assessment survey, are the most heavily weighted categories at 22 percent, faculty resources (including data such as student-to-faculty ratios and class sizes) at 20 percent, and expert opinion, completed by presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions ranking other schools at 20 percent.
Clearly, the margins for error are extremely high. Universities provide their own data with little check as to whether or not the information is accurate, and highly arbitrary factors, such as having different higher education “experts” rate schools, leads to extremely subjective ranking. While one student may thrive in a school with a small student-to-faculty ratio, this might not be true of every student, and weighing measures such as this heavily presupposes there are better ways to learn than others. American university culture, so long built upon competition, elitism and selectivity, thrives upon rankings, ensuring students end up caring more about a ranking than what a particular program or school could provide for their future.
Ultimately, Columbia University’s scandal may serve to do us some good. Revealing the worthlessness of groundless and discretionary means by which most college rankings are based may finally unveil the fact that, perhaps, the value of a college education is what you make of it and depends on the students. Hardworking, intelligent students can be found at any college campus across the country — name, number and price tag tell us nothing about the skills and pedagogy at a university.
What top-tier universities with extra funding do offer is a network within America’s elite, thereby opening opportunities that may otherwise not have been available. Schools ranked higher also usually tend to have better academic counseling, accommodations, internship and job resources, whereas lower ranked schools are often neglected in these aspects. However, the education you receive — and, more importantly, the outcome of that education, including jobs and graduate degrees — is mostly dependent on the student. There are very few numbers or data sets by which one can separate a “bad” education from a “good” one.
This is not to say all rankings are completely useless. One of the more useful ways of ranking schools is found on Forbes’ annual list of college rankings, where the heaviest weighted factors include alumni salaries and debt after graduation. These categories are far more important and influential than “peer assessment reviews,” as the return on investment that an education can provide is extremely important in choosing a school and may be one of the only worthwhile ways in which we can effectively rank the value of American higher education.
Colin Diver, the former president of Reed College in Oregon and the former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, notably pulled Reed College from the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings in 1995, and is a loud critic of the system of ranking colleges.
Diver noted his critiques in a November 2005 article for The Atlantic.
“Trying to rank institutions of higher education is a little like trying to rank religions or philosophies,” Diver wrote. “The entire enterprise is flawed, not only in detail but also in conception.”
Diver is correct — attempting to rank universities by subjective measures of merit such as faculty opinion serves no outwardly good purpose and in fact, is more harmful than helpful. Hopefully, Columbia University’s wrongdoing will put us on the path toward a society where rankings are no longer the emphasized measure of the value of education and the success of students.
Samantha Rigante is a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law.