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Games Colleges Play

Greg Spears

WHEN OUR KIDS applied to colleges, the smallest detail of each campus visit mattered a lot. If our daughter admired the student leading our tour, the school skyrocketed in her estimation. If the class our son attended to “get a feel for the place” turned out to be a test period, Grandpa’s alma mater was forever struck from consideration.

In economic terms, the college decision features asymmetric information. Colleges know a lot about us from our detailed personal and financial applications. We know only a little about the college, yet we wager a fortune on the hope that it’ll accelerate our child’s growth into adulthood.

Into this breach stepped U.S. News & World Report with its college ranking system. It assembles reams of data and boils it all down to one all-knowing statistic: how a school ranks against every other college in the nation. William & Mary, for example, is tied for No. 41 among national universities in the U.S. News 2022-23 rankings—not No. 40, not No. 42.

If you suspect such certainty suggests false precision, you’ll find plenty of support in a recent paper by Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia University math professor. Using math and new research, he demolishes his employer’s U.S. News ranking as the second-best college in the nation. He also suggests there are better sites to use when evaluating colleges, which I’ll share at the end.

In his paper, Thaddeus compared Columbia’s reported U.S. News numbers against publicly available information. Lying is such an ugly word. Let’s just say he found Columbia stretched the truth quite often to raise its ranking.

For example, Columbia told U.S. News that 100% of its faculty have PhDs or terminal degrees in their field, a higher percentage than Princeton, MIT, Harvard or Yale. Looking through faculty bios, Thaddeus found 66 cases where this was not the case—although these faculty may still be great teachers and one, in fact, has a Nobel Prize. Still, just 96% of the Columbia faculty have earned the highest degree in their field, according to Thaddeus.

Columbia reported that more than 96% of its faculty are fulltime. Thaddeus’s research yielded a figure of 74%. Columbia claimed that 82% of its classes contain fewer than 20 students. From the data he found, Thaddeus concludes the true number is at most 67%. Columbia reported its student-faculty ratio is 6:1. Thaddeus comes up somewhere between 8:1 and 11:1 based on the information he could find.

On and on it goes. Now, I’m certain Columbia is a great school. From Thaddeus’s research, however, I’d wager it doesn’t deserve its standing as the second-best college in the nation. Yet it’s been sold as such to thousands of prospective students, who are paying almost $86,000 this year in tuition, fees, room and board. Travel is extra.

You might wonder: At what point does fiddling the numbers cross the line into fraud? For an insight, look to Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia. Temple’s online MBA program was ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News for four years. It was based on falsified figures.

At a trial in federal court, prosecutors argued that Moshe Porat, the former dean, reverse-engineered the ranking system and then provided U.S. News with the false data necessary to produce a top result. They alleged the school collected an extra $40 million in tuition based on these falsehoods.

After deliberating for less than an hour, a jury found Porat guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud last November. He’s currently appealing his conviction and his sentence to 14 months in prison and a $250,000 fine. Meantime, Fox’s online MBA program dropped to 105th place in the latest ranking after U.S. News received unadulterated figures from the school.

Thaddeus recommends that the entire ranking system be scrapped. “No one should try to reform or rehabilitate the U.S. News ranking: it is irredeemable,” he wrote in the executive summary for his paper. “Students are poorly served by rankings, and they create harmful incentives for universities. Even worse, the data on which rankings are based cannot be trusted.”

Thaddeus recommends three websites to evaluate colleges. “College applicants are much better advised to rely on government websites like College Navigator and College Scorecard, which compare specific aspects of specific schools. A broad categorization of institutions, like the Carnegie Classification, may also be helpful.”

The first two sites provide reams of raw data about colleges, including costs, admission rates, average test scores, graduation rates and graduates’ average earnings. The Carnegie Classification groups schools by type. MIT, for example, is classified as a “doctoral university” conducting “very high research activity.” When I clicked on the site’s “find similar” schools button, I got 146 results—among them Auburn, Clemson, Emory, Montana State and the University of Rochester.

What you won’t find on these sites are any hierarchical rankings or bragging rights. You become the judge of the best schools, given the raw data and what you know about your child.

Incidentally, in July, U.S. News dropped Columbia from last year’s rankings. The publisher said the school “failed to respond to multiple U.S. News requests that the university substantiate certain data it previously submitted.” Columbia’s response? Last Friday, it finally acknowledged submitting inaccurate data.

Yesterday, U.S. News published its new 2022-23 rankings. Where does Columbia stand? How does tied for 18th sound?

Greg Spears is HumbleDollar’s deputy editor. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, Greg spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. He currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. Greg is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder. Check out his earlier articles.

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