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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.

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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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medhat
medhat
22 days ago

Interested in the experiences of others, but as someone who’s gone through the college admissions carousel 3 times (all done now!), as a family we never really paid too much attention to any of these rankings. Our kids all had a sober idea of where they would be competitive for admission, and as parents we tried as best as we could to let them figure out what would be the best “fit” for each of them individually (they all chose vastly different educational environments). While cost was a consideration, we were in a position where we could value fit > cost (then there were grants and scholarships that helped as well). But never was there a consideration that, because a school was ranked 17 vs 20, or unranked, that came into the picture.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
22 days ago

Once you get in the work place it is all about what you can do. You cannot rely on prestigious degrees but so long. At some point you have to perform. I have seen people with degrees from prestigious schools who were unimpressive and people from lowly ranked schools or without degrees who were stars. It is all about the individual.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
22 days ago

If the student is an academic achiever and you’re of modest income, consider the size of a university’s endowment and what that could mean to potential financial aid. My son was accepted to all the schools where he applied, which included private and a highly competitive public university. The private university he chose has an $11 billion endowment with just 16,000 students. The public university has a $2.38 billion endowment with almost 60,000 students. He received full tuition for four years (about $40K annually) as long as he maintained a certain GPA. It gave him additional grants for everything his senior year because I had been unemployed for more than a year. (He also always did work study jobs, too).

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
22 days ago

There are a lot of ways colleges can make their ‘stats’ look better. One stat that started to appear in rankings a few years ago was ‘graduation rate’. This was to show how many students–who started at the college as freshmen–actually graduated four years later.

Oftentimes schools with the worst ‘graduation rate’ were actually some of the best schools. They were the institutions who demanded the most from their students day in and day out. Of course, these schools had stats that looked bad. Sometimes as many as 1/3 of the students ended up dropping out because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deal with the rigors of academia.

One way to improve that particular stat is to make the academic environment less challenging. Make the classes easier. Make sure every student passes every class…

corrupt
corrupt
18 days ago
Reply to  Kristine Hayes

Perhaps a better measurement would be second year to graduation rate as most of those unsuitable students would have been weeded out.

UofODuck
UofODuck
22 days ago

An undergraduate college education is as much about maturation as education. It is also true for most of us that on day 2 of your first job out of college, few will remember or care where you went to college. Having said that, I well remember the day my son said, looking out the window of a proposed dorm room with an ocean view, “I think I’d like to go here.” It was, of course, his most expensive choice, but he rewarded us by graduating on time, with honors.

I think its no secret that colleges and universities have monetized certain study programs because of demand and because they are highly profitable. We may want to think that higher education is only about education, but we should never forget that is also a highly competitive business. The right students (or athletes in some cases) and the right faculty (coaches) can significantly affect a college or university’s perceived value, which directly affects donations and applications.

As long as the “supply” of space in top ranked schools remains limited, its hard to see how the competition to attract students/donors/athletes will diminish. Fortunately, for most students seeking a higher education, there are lots of less competitive (and costly) alternatives, including two years at community college before transferring to a four year program.

parkslope
parkslope
22 days ago

Academics have long known that the U.S. News rankings are of little value. However, Americans are obsessed with rankings, and administrators have been faced with the fact that their U.S. News standing affects both the quality of students they attract and tuition income. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a system that relies on self-reports is widely gamed.

U.S. News & World Report used to be respected for its widespread quality news coverage. However, it is now mainly known for its college rankings which no doubt are now its major source of income.

There is an article about Columbia’s fall in the rankings in today’s NYTimes.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/13/nyregion/columbia-loses-a-plus-status-in-us-news-rankings.html

Bill Woolf
Bill Woolf
22 days ago

For readers who want to learn more about the meaninglessness of college rankings, there is a revealing three-part podcast by Malcolm Gladwell that deconstructs the whole system. It’s well worth your time. Lord of the Rankings | Revisionist History (pushkin.fm)

AnthonyClan
AnthonyClan
22 days ago

I suggest that if we are going to have ranking system that they focus on results – how well have graduates done, long term satisfaction, etc. We rank cars based on real world long term experience (I.e. Consumer Reports ratings) not on how many robots the factory has, factory worker stats, etc.

tshort
tshort
22 days ago

“When a metric becomes a goal, it ceases to be a valid metric.”

So sayeth a famed business guru.

[/RANT ON]The whole college ranking thing has gotten out of control, as your post clearly shows, with schools gaming the system as they try to increase their rankings.

Students (and their parents) are complicit in this as they strive to maximize the future return of their expenditure on education. Which is really too bad.

There was a time when a great education could be had at pretty much any accredited state-supported institution, whether it was the one that would deny admission to no one with a high school diploma or the premier AAA university with excellent academics and the top football team. Either way, it was up to the student to maximize the value of the experience, both academically and socially. And often they did.

Scanning through resumes of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies back in the day, I was often surprised to discover they were alumni of some unknown second or third tier college or university.

It’s too bad the focus has shifted to increasing future earning power, rather than becoming an educated, productive member of society. Ultimately the students and society both lose out. And the fact remains, a great education can be had at pretty much any accredited college or university.[/RANT OFF]

Last edited 22 days ago by tshort
James Mitchell
James Mitchell
22 days ago

Let me propose that this is a subset of the larger issue, that we don’t know how to asses learning in a comparative manner. Grades are an approximation within a given course section for a given term, but comparing learning even between different sections, much less different years, or between courses with the same name taught at different institutions is almost impossible. I’d argue that research spending on valid methods of assessment would be extraordinarily beneficial.

What rankings depend on, to a great extent, is research prowess as exhibited by research funding, paper citations, membership in academies etc. Despite administrator protestations, these have almost nothing to do with education.

If I were again making the decision about where to spend on my daughter’s college education, I’d start with the College Scorecard. I’d then look at whether the institution had an honors program, and what it consisted of. I’d prowl the discussions on Redit and similar sites. Only if my offspring was headed towards an academic career would rankings mean a great deal – though I’ll admit I’d look at them.

I write as a tenured professor and administrator at a Research-1 institution for 32 years.

steveark
steveark
22 days ago

Even if the overall college ranking was reliable it would not tell you how good the particular department teaching a particular major is. A school with a great business college might have an awful mechanical engineering department and a mediocre architecture program. The state university I attended had an OK reputation, nothing special, but the chemical engineering department was outstanding. Like an all you can eat buffet line, the buffet might be highly regarded but that doesn’t mean you want to try that sushi that has been sitting out all day. And even more important, picking a major that leads to a great job is far more crucial than where you go to get it.

alpha omega
alpha omega
22 days ago

Wish I had been wiser to the college game two decades ago. We spent substantial sums educating our children in fancy undergraduate and professional schools. We have been hit twice. First in buying into the numbers scam. Second in being socked with Biden’s forgiveness program. As middle class persons, we should have saddled our kids with loans which would be forgiven, instead of foregoing vacations, etc to afford the tuition bills.
The only solace is our kids turned out mature successful professionals, who, God willing, will not need us financially again.(One Ivy League lawyer; the other a physician).

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
22 days ago
Reply to  alpha omega

Sounds like the schools you chose and your sacrifices were worth it if one kid went to an Ivy League law school and the other became a doctor. I don’t think they will need your help. As a middle class parent, it’s great you were able to send them to “fancy” schools. However, 20 years ago, tuition was almost 180 percent less than now. Biden’s forgiveness will help lower income parents like me, especially because my kids will get up to $20k because they also received Pell grants. My son received an academic scholarship to a private university where tuition is $40K a year. But housing adds up. Many of those being helped by Biden are the nurses who help care for us and those teaching our grandchildren. I am thankful.

alpha omega
alpha omega
20 days ago
Reply to  Ronald Wayne

My kids qualified for no grants. I worked 7 days a week, 15 hour days, no vacations. We came to the US as immigrants with $ 10 in our pocket and one of us worked three jobs. I am enraged that after having met our financial responsibilities ourselves, we have to pay for others. Why? Get a second job. Let the kids learn a trade and go to school parttime(We did). If kids are handed out “free” money, how will they acquire a work ethic?

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
22 days ago

I read a ranking article several years ago that showed the Top Ten Subdivisions of a large metropolitan city. One of the “Subdivisions” was over 125 miles away from that metropolitan city. I contacted the writer and was told that the rankings were done by computer. They didn’t really look at them to see if they made any sense. I always remember that when I see “rankings.”

Nick M
Nick M
22 days ago

US News was just another random magazine, and only still exists today because of their arbitrary ranking system. Malcolm Gladwell has talked extensively about how arbitrary their rankings are, even when not externally manipulated. The competition for rankings does nothing to improve educational outcomes. What it does do, is contribute to the rising cost of education, as colleges spend more and more money on things that merely attract students, rather than educate them.

Linda Grady
Linda Grady
22 days ago

Wow, Greg! Thanks for this eye-opener. My grandson, for whom I will be the main guide in his college selection process, is only in 10th grade, but next year begin the visits and deep research. You have provided a great map for where to start and what to skip. I hope U. S. News & World Report accepts Dr. Thaddeus’s research and scraps their rankings. The rankings have become a major tool in the college app/student loan business.

alpha omega
alpha omega
22 days ago
Reply to  Linda Grady

I doubt US News will accept Dr T’s advice. If it did it would lose its raison d’etre.

Linda Grady
Linda Grady
21 days ago
Reply to  alpha omega

🙁 You’re right. But at least I won’t waste my time or lose sleep thinking about them.

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