The college ratings racket exposes the deep problems in the higher education

In the US, colleges compete to get students. The colleges that are not prestigious do so often by means of lower price and not being too selective in whom they admit. The more prestigious and selective colleges do so by means of reputation, and one of the measures by which reputation is measured is by the rankings issued by various bodies. The one that is most looked at is the annual one issued by the publication US News & World Report. It uses measures such as the faculty-to-student ratio, the percentage of classes taught by full-time faculty, the admission scores of the students, the reputation among its peers, graduation rates, and other items. Many of the data are submitted by the institutions themselves and one can see how that can lead to temptation by administrators to fudge the data in order to increase the ranking.

Now a whistleblower at Colombia University, a mathematics professor there, has said that some of the data submitted by his university were incorrect. As a result, the ranking of the university plummeted from 3rd to 18th.

Columbia University in New York City was previously ranked as US News’s second best university. But its recent drop to the 18th spot has many questioning the legitimacy of the annual ranking system and its substantial influence, the New York Times reported.

Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus in February accused the university of submitting inaccurate data related to its class sizes, number of full-time faculty and other statistics.

As a result of Thaddeus’s report, Columbia announced that it would not submit statistics for this year’s ranking and would conduct a review of its own data practices.

US News & World Report then said in July that it had revised last year’s ranking, listing Columbia as “unranked” compared with its previous No 2 spot.

A spokesperson from the university on Friday confirmed that previously submitted figures had been overstated, specifically related to how many small classes the university offers and the number of faculty members that hold terminal degrees, CNN reported.

Being 18th is the nation would be highly envied by most universities but universities tend to compare themselves with the much smaller group that they consider to be their peers, and for Colombia, that would be the ones among the top ten, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. So this is a major fall from grace.

But this scandal has also brought to the surface long-simmering complaints about the merits of this ranking system, with critics complaining that colleges focus far too much on improving just those items that go into the rankings instead of the overall learning experience.

“The broader lesson everyone should keep in mind is that US News has shown its operations are so shoddy that both of [the rankings] are meaningless,” Thaddeus said to the Times.

He added: “If any institution can decline from No 2 to No 18 in a single year, it just discredits the whole ranking operation.”

This is not the first time a university has been accused of manipulating the college ranking.

In March a former dean of Temple University received a 14-month prison sentence for fraud after submitting false data to boost the school’s master’s in business administration degree program ranking, the Wall Street Journal reported.

There are deep-seated problems in the US college system. One of the major ones is cost. For decades, the cost of college has been increasing at a rate much higher than inflation so that now many students and their families end up with large amounts of debt by the time they graduate, which acts as a heavy burden on their lives and careers, just as they are starting out in life.

One of the factors leading to this rapid rise is that in competing for students, universities spend a lot on things that are non-education related, such as fancy dorms, sports and recreational facilities, fancier eating options, and the like in order to be more attractive, so that the fancier institutions can look like resorts or finishing schools, with education as a sideline. But their peers do the same too, so the net result is rising costs for all with little or no net improvement in the yield of students.

Another major factor in rising costs is administration bloat. It used to be that college administrators were drawn from the ranks of the faculty who would rotate in and out of the position but remain faculty at heart. Now when faculty move into administrative positions like department chairs, for some of them that is the first step in an administrative career ladder that leads to them becoming deans and then provosts and then presidents, with each position having deputies and assistants as stepping stones. So now we have a class of career college administrators who have weak ties to any particular college but float from institution to institution up the ranks, and recruited at higher and higher salaries. The modern university is much like a major corporation with many layers of professional administrators, with those at the higher levels being paid salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and even millions, way more than almost any faculty member.

The Colombia whistleblower has this deeper problem of the university in his sights.

Thaddeus began digging into the numbers as Columbia celebrated its stunning rise in the rankings from 18th in 1988. It broke into the top five in 2011 and eventually made second place last year.

“A few other top-tier universities have also improved their standings, but none has matched Columbia’s extraordinary rise. It is natural to wonder what the reason might be,” he wrote in his analysis.

When Thaddeus began to suspect that Columbia’s numbers didn’t add up, he saw the opportunity to discredit a system he regards as a con perpetrated on prospective students desperate to ensure that the tens of thousands of dollars a year many will spend on gigantic tuition fees are worth it.

But Thaddeus, who has taught at Columbia for 24 years, also had another target in his sights – his own university’s administration.

The former head of Columbia’s mathematics department described an expanding and self-replicating bureaucracy that is growing ever more expensive to maintain. He said that Columbia’s endowment is not large enough to cover the cost of the growing administration and so it is paid for by increasing tuition costs.

“It means that our educational programmes have to be run to some degree as money-making ventures. That is the secret that can’t be openly acknowledged,” he said.

Thaddeus suspects administrators rigged the data to move the university up the rankings in order to justify rising tuition fees which, at about $65,000 a year, are more than five times the amount paid by the parents of today’s students in the 1980s.

Thaddeus acknowledged that there was a need for more staff to provide services that were not previously available such as much more extensive career placement, counseling and psychiatric care. But he does not believe that accounts for the growth of a bureaucracy he describes as self-serving and unaccountable.

“It’s clear that the growth of university bureaucracies and administration has been a major driver of the cost of higher education growing much, much faster than inflation. We now have about 4,500 administrators on the main campus, about three times the number of faculty, and that’s a new development over the past 20 years,” he said.

I myself saw the rapid growth of the bureaucracy during my time in the university, with new positions regularly being created at the top levels. I would speak out against it but was too small a fish to be taken notice of.

I think Thaddeus has done us all a service.


  1. says

    I myself saw the rapid growth of the bureaucracy during my time in the university, with new positions regularly being created at the top levels.

    Whenever anyone complains about “growth of bureaucracy,” out first question should always be: “What, specifically, are the new bureaucrats and new administrative agencies/divisions/whatever doing?” It could be because of new programs that are beneficial to students; or to administer compliance to certain regulations or reporting requirements that may or may not enhance the school’s performance or educational mission. Most of the people who regularly complain about big or growing bureaucracies, are actually covering for an attack on some programs that they oppose and want to get rid of. So the next question should be: “Which bits of new bureaucracy or new administrative positions should we be looking to cut?”

  2. mastmaker says

    One of the most important steps to take is for the government to mandate the salary cap of Administrators and coaches at 125% or 150% of the pay of HIGHEST paid professor. In order to prevent the college from paying ONE professor a huge salary to justify the administrative salaries, we can stipulate that the maximum admin/coach pay must be lesser of 150% HIGHEST professor pay and 200% of the average professor pay.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    The University of Florida maintained (just barely, splitting it with another school) its 5th-rank place for a second year -- despite (what ought to have been) devastating scandals of political influence* degrading its faculty hiring and independence, and explicit efforts to jigger its budgeting to line up with USNWR criteria.

    That in itself discredits the US News evaluation system, or ought to.

    *Trumpista Republican, of course.

  4. Allison says

    The other lie is that a higher-ranked university will give a better education than a lesser-ranked one.

    But then, one doesn’t go to an ultra-expensive, top-ranked school like Harvard or Princeton or Columbia to get a great education. You go there to make connections with the people who are going to be running and ruining the country (and the world), so that they’ll hire or appoint you to a fancy, or at least well-paying, position. In Vonnegut’s words, “to slurp at the money river.” And even if you don’t manage that, it gives you credentials that matter to snobby companies. A degree from Harvard will get you into places that a degree from Duke won’t. If you wonder why parents will go to such extremes to get their kids into fancy name schools, that’s it.

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    I’ve been reading “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil. I haven’t finished it yet, but the college rating racket is in the first chapters. The point is that they use algorithms that are not published or peer reviewed, so the teachers and students cannot defend themselves. Besides, the rating is outsourced to a consultant, who isn’t respossible to anyone.

    The administrators are happy, because they need not think. The computer tells undeniable facts, and its recommendations are based on best industry practices. In fact, if the administrators started disobeying the algoritms they might get in trouble for “incompetence”.

    The real winners are the consultants. They make profit without any risk.

    It’s a good book for anyone interested in abuse of mathematics.

  6. Amarnath says

    I like Business School ranking. It is based purely on the starting salaries of its graduates in the job market.

  7. Deepak Shetty says


    It’s a good book for anyone interested in abuse of mathematics

    +1. It made rethink my AI /big data dabbling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *