Is Columbia University one of the best colleges or universities in the country?
Last year, U.S. News and World Report, probably the most influential ranker of such things, put Columbia at No. 2 in the country, and no one questioned whether it belonged there. No one, that is, except for one Columbia math professor who questioned the data that Columbia was reporting and, after an internal review, Columbia announced that it was withdrawing from the rankings for a year.
But when the numbers came out last week, Columbia had dropped from No. 2 to No. 18 — based on nothing more than the fact that they have a very smart math professor on the faculty. Who, by the way, publicly criticized the new ranking even more sharply than the old one, noting that U.S. News assigned "competitive set values," which appeared to be "just a slightly more decorous way of saying they pulled these numbers out of the air."
That one of the most prestigious universities in the world could drop 16 slots in a year based on nothing but reporting errors should cast doubt on the whole enterprise of college and university rankings.
It is, after all, an open secret that colleges and universities manipulate their rankings in all kinds of ways. Merit scholarships for high test scorers, one of the easiest numbers to "buy" up. Employ your own graduates so that it looks like everyone gets jobs — that's another classic, especially for professional schools. Research assistants, anyone?
Then there's the strategic use of spring admits and transfers for legacies and special admits whose numbers don't measure up — and aren't reported because the rankings are based on the entering class. And these are just some of the obvious ploys.
Ask any serious academic and they'll tell you that these numbers are no way to decide where to go to college or professional school. And they're right, in so many ways. I tell would-be law students that if they don't get in to one of the very best national law schools, they should focus on schools in the city or state where they want to practice, because that's where they'll find a strong alumni network of future employers.
But however much criticism may be heaped on the ratings, the fact is they do matter, not only to students, but to deans and university presidents, who have been known to publicly brag when their numbers go up. And who can blame them when alumni value their degrees by the rankings on the chart?
So, what should a serious student do? Very simple. Do real research. Find the underrated schools, the schools that are better than the numbers suggest, the schools that may not play as hard to score well but make up for it in scholarship and teaching.
Research the faculty and the programs the school offers. Talk to alums and professionals you respect. It takes more work, to be sure, than simply running down the numbers on the list. But these are life decisions that deserve attention.
And this year, it's easy. The most underrated school is sitting at No. 18. It's a great year to apply to Columbia, the very same school that was No. 2 last year.
Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. Whether on the pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post or as a television commentator on countless news programs on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC, she has tackled legal matters, women's concerns, national politics and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.