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College Rankings and the Cynicism of American Higher Education

Columbia University is located in Morningside Heights in New York City.
Columbia University is located in Morningside Heights in New York City. By Michael Gritzbach

Oh, how the mighty have fallen — the mighty New Yorkers, that is.

Last week, Columbia University dropped abruptly from second to 18th on U.S. News & World Report’s best national university rankings list, becoming the lowest ranked school in the Ivy League. The unlikely cause of the meteoric fall? The work of one of Columbia’s own, professor Michael Thaddeus, who pin-pointed inaccurate statistics his school had detailed to the U.S. News & World Report University Rankings report: Underestimations of undergraduate class size averages, inflated student-to-faculty ratios, and distorted graduation outcomes.

Thus far, the university has acknowledged it ‘miscalculated’ some of the submitted data; U.S. News seems to have found the allegations severe enough to initially remove Columbia from the ranking temporarily, and the variation between reported and accurate data proved large enough to undo decades’ worth of ranking-climbing.

In identifying and publicly rebuking Columbia’s behavior, Thaddeus embodied the highest ideals of integrity and scholarship. Academics are tasked with the search for truth; when academic institutions disseminate inaccuracies — particularly when said inaccuracies are so conspicuously aligned with their own institutional incentives — they fail their mission. Thaddeus put the search for truth above his personal interests, antagonizing his institution, and we commend him for it.

Columbia’s misrepresentations are a symptom of more fundamental dysfunction at the root of American education. They remind us of our prioritization of rank, status, and prestige above genuine excellence in teaching and research. Intellectual curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge, and just about any other high-minded idiom of academe seem too often to fall by the wayside: The pursuit of prestige takes their place. That administrators at an institution as prominent, well-resourced, and storied as Columbia University submitted inaccurate information only to reap notoriety and prestige is deeply disappointing.

The perverse incentives these rankings induce, the manifestly absurd results they sometimes yield (Harvard and Yale tied at third?), and the disturbingly firm grasp they seem to hold on everyone’s attention — all point to a need for reassessment. Given these incentive structures, we have little reason to believe that Harvard or any other institution would find themselves immune from the pressures Columbia may, perhaps, have felt.

These pressures flow down to primary and secondary education, too. Many elite high schools start to see themselves as vendors of college acceptance letters first and education second. The ideal outcome becomes the AP Scholar with six leadership positions instead of the curious student of character and quality. Parents become customers who are always right instead of partners in the task of educating young people. The goal of raising kids with a sense of drive, independence, and personal responsibility stays in the foreground of our language but fades into the background of our actions.

Statistics of any sort cannot provide a full and reliable picture of the quality of an educational experience. Statistics can be a useful aid — students need help narrowing down their choices, and average class size or graduation rates are useful proxies. But the tail is now wagging the dog, and the culture of American education is in desperate need of reform.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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