On Aug. 17, U.S. News & World Report released its annual Best Colleges edition. Barnard remained at a respectable 26th place in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category, but the big news came when readers turned to the section on National Universities. After more than a decade of vacillating between eighth and 10th place, Columbia University had shot to the No. 4 spot.
Immediately, comments started popping up on college admissions forums. “Now I don’t feel so bad about not getting in,” said one commenter on College Confidential, an online source for college-bound seniors. “And balance is restored to the force,” said another. “That’s awesome. And unexpected.” Meanwhile, Spectrum, the blog of Spectator, saw current Columbia students weighing in just as prolifically. “I am so embarrassed at how proud I am of this,” said one commenter. “The rankings are all BS and have no real reasons or anything,” said another, “[and] the fact that people care so much is sheer marketing genius.” And finally, there was: “How does it taste, Penn and Stanford? HOW DOES IT TASTE?"
Every summer for the past 27 years, high school seniors and their families have turned to one source over any other to help narrow down their college search. U.S. News & World Report neatly ranks the top National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges in the country, promising an easy and objective checklist of academic worth. And despite countless other sources, from the student-geared Forbes Review to the College Prowler series, both prospective undergrads and current students have taken fierce pride in the seemingly reliable, quantitative measurements of their school’s academic worth
Yet, for as long as the report has existed, scholars, students, and administrations have also found it to be a source of tension, both between those consistently competing for the top few places and those ranked lower than they feel they deserve. For examples of the former and the latter, one need look no further than the flagship institutions of Morningside Heights: Columbia University and Barnard College.
Columbia: The Ivy Outcast
Since it was established as King’s College in 1754, Columbia has consistently been named alongside Harvard, Princeton, and Yale as a top school, not only in the nation but in the world. Yet, in the history of the U.S. News special until very recently, Columbia had ranked only as high as eighth and as low as 15th place. Meanwhile, Harvard continued to hold first place for most of the 2000s, only briefly displaced by Princeton before asserting its dominance again.
Harvard’s unchallenged spot, among other things, has helped to generate a significant amount of criticism from its peers, and has raised the still-unanswered questions of whether these rankings are little more than self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, schools with higher selectivity, faculty pay, and alumnae resources will inevitably gain higher rankings, which will in turn generate further spikes in the aforementioned advantages. Institutions have also taken the system to task for its methodology, arguing that the factors weighed are at best arbitrary and at worst a stacked deck—giving birth to a system that consistently ranks the historically top schools highest and the bottom schools lowest.
U.S. News attempted to address some of these issues this year by changing its methodology, and for Columbia, at least, the payoff has been spectacular. In the past, the portion of the rating concerning “Undergraduate Academic Reputation” was based solely on peer assessments from university faculty and staff. This year, however, the magazine opened it up to high school college counselors, asking them to rank attributes such as faculty dedication to students on a scale from one to five, with their opinions counting for 7.5 percent of the total. Editors also decided to increase the importance of the “Graduation Rate” category by 2.5 percent, giving the advantage to schools whose six-year graduation rate was higher than U.S. News predicted for the class.
But the difference between being in the top 10 and in the top five isn’t as significant as it seems, especially since Columbia has had a national reputation for years and a spate of illustrious and wealthy alumni helping to pad its résumé. Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions, notes that, although the rise can’t hurt, “We have consistently been considered among the world’s best universities, and a strong applicant pool, year after year, is a testament to this.”
The Barnard Boycott
Barnard, despite its formidable reputation on the East Coast, has neither the years nor the widespread name recognition that its partner does. This year saw a slight lift in Barnard’s position, from 28th to 26th, but even the changes this year came about only from a long, hard struggle, one with which many liberal arts schools are still left dissatisfied.
U.S. News has always found its harshest critics in the Liberal Arts category, with such prestigious (and highly ranked) institutions as Reed, Dickinson, and Skidmore debating the logic of weighing categories that exist for National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges by almost the same percentage, despite their different goals and setups.
Things came to a head in 2007, when the Annapolis Group, a nonprofit organization representing 130 independent liberal arts institutions, decided to abstain from submitting the controversial peer assessment. Barnard’s president at the time, Judith Shapiro, was at the forefront of the movement, calling the rankings a “swimsuit competition” and calling on the Annapolis Group to create an alternative system to rival it. For the next two years, the majority of the Annapolis Group stuck by the pledge, refusing to submit peer assessments and only fully returning to the system this year.
But even with the changes U.S. News has implemented, the rankings still put a lot of emphasis on factors that are more important to National Universities than to Liberal Arts Colleges. “I’d like to see increased attention on student retention and graduation rates,” says Greg Brown, chief operating officer at Barnard. “In my opinion, the level of selectivity and test scores carry too much weight.” While these numbers may be useful for the sprawling campuses of New York University and the University of Chicago, schools like Barnard often focus on more intangible measures of academic worth.
Take, for example, the admission process, in which students are evaluated less on their SAT/ACT scores than on their responses to the five essay questions they are required to submit, which the magazine is incapable of ranking. The attention given to the number of admitted students at the top of their high school classes can also be easily skewed. The weight given to whether a top-ranked student comes from a challenging and competitive institution or from a less academically rigorous school is an impossibly time-consuming task when applied to every college in the country. Finally, the section devoted to faculty resources, while investing a good third of its score in how much professors are paid, only gives 20 percent to how many classes have fewer than 20 students, and a bare 5 percent to the faculty-student ratio. While these numbers have less significance when it comes to a large university like Columbia, they are two factors that set liberal arts institutions apart.
Perhaps the most important factor overlooked in the ranking process, however, is a Barnard-specific one, an issue as thorny as it is omnipresent in any discussion of BC: the fact that Barnard’s assets are never fully represented without Columbia factored in. “I believe that our ranking is lower than it should be, primarily because the methodology simply can’t account for the Barnard-Columbia relationship,” Brown says. “Because the Columbia relationship doesn’t fit neatly into any of the survey categories, it is essentially ignored. … Rankings are inherently limited in this way.”
Administrations aside, the most important part of the college-magazine-student triangle is, of course, the prospective student. The amount of credit high school seniors give the rankings determines how much power they hold over institutions and families. In order to get a sense of how much credence Barnard and Columbia students give to the annual report, I administered a survey to 26 Columbia undergraduates, 21 Barnard women, and eight Columbia graduate students, asking them how much of an influence the magazine had on their decision.
Columbia students, on average, paid far more attention to the U.S. News & World Report rankings than Barnard students did. When asked how important Columbia’s placement was when choosing where to apply, the majority of undergrads said it was very important, with all but a few saying it was at least an important factor in their search.
Barnard students, in contrast, admitted to using the magazine but were quick to emphasize that it was one of several factors in their search, citing things like location and a strong liberal arts foundation as the more important aspects of their decision. Some claimed they had not looked at the list at all. “I don’t regret not using them,” says Carly Silver, a junior at Barnard. “I loved Barnard and was impressed with its academic reputation, regardless of the rankings.”
Columbia students were also more likely to assert that the rankings were a very reliable judge of a university’s worth, while Barnard students were more likely to say that the rankings were either somewhat or very unreliable.
In a surprising twist, CC students were also less likely to know precisely how their school’s overall score was calculated, often listing only a few of the factors taken into account and sometimes naming categories that aren’t. Barnard undergrads who took rankings into account, on the other hand, were split between a basic and a comprehensive knowledge of the various factors incorporated into the final score, and some were even able to identify the specific ways in which they felt these proved that the rankings were unreliable, if still useful.
It seems, from this small sampling at least, that students are only truly invested in the reliability of these rankings when they are ranked lower—if a school was already in the top 15, or especially the top five, students at Columbia were more likely to take the numbers for granted as legitimate and fair. Certainly, the fact that Barnard has not risen or fallen dramatically makes it difficult to measure the effect its placing has on students, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt the number of applications the school receives in being ranked lower than it feels it deserves. In fact, as Brown points out, “We had a record number of applicants for the class of 2014 in a year when our rank declined slightly.”
Graduate students, on the other hand, seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of the U.S. News ranking system. While undergraduates utilized the magazine mainly to narrow down their initial search, graduate students freely admitted that the report was a primary tool in determining which university to attend. One graduate student, who wished to remain anonymous, had this to say: “The rankings were, I mean, not all I looked at, but [they were important] for the first few weeks. ... You need to go to the best schools; there’s no time for messing around.” The search for the best fit, a phrase often heard in the undergraduate application process, here seems—perhaps understandably—to have been replaced by a search for the most prestige.
An Imperfect System
Only time will tell whether Columbia’s new status as a top five school will stick, and how it will impact the general impressions alumni, current students, and prospective students have of the University. “It’s pretty typical that, given how unique Columbia is, different rankings using different criteria will yield different results,” says Michele Moody-Adams, dean of Columbia College. If U.S. News changes its system again or reverts back to the old one, Columbia’s position may change. But there is little doubt that the numbers game, as it plays out now, is by and large in Columbia’s favor.
Meanwhile, Barnard seems resigned to sticking with a necessary evil—one that will undoubtedly influence a majority of prospective students. “Although we hesitate to lend any more credence to these rankings than they’re worth,” Brown says, Barnard recognizes that U.S. News is one of the main resources families use to evaluate college choices. “By not participating in their surveys,” he says, “we would be cutting ourselves off from their marketplace.”
The addition of an addendum to Barnard’s rank, encouraging parents and prospective students to take Columbia’s rank into account as well, was at best given lukewarm support or at worst roundly rejected by the majority of Columbia students and a significant portion of Barnard students. Another year of boycotting the peer review might do more harm than good, as Barnard’s scores actually dipped slightly in the years in which they refused to participate, and developing an independent tool that would serve the same purpose “is simply not feasible.” It would lack both the years and the credibility that allow U.S. News to remain at the forefront of the rankings systems.
Further changes may come from the pressure U.S. News continues to receive from the Annapolis Group, even in this diluted form. “It’s my belief,” says Brown, “that this change [in methodology] was a direct result of Barnard and peer institutions taking a stand against this aspect of the ratings.” But the more significant changes will have to come not from the schools that feel they are treated unfairly by the system, but by the schools at the top, including Columbia itself.
Columbia could be an especially valuable ally in the push to reform, if not outright challenge, the U.S. News system. With its dramatic one-year rise after only a slight shift in calculations, Columbia is ideally poised to question the system’s validity—but will it do so, now that it has finally broken the top-five marker?
It seems unlikely, at least if graduate feedback is any indication. The open admission of how much these rankings matter to Columbia grad students helps to illustrate how much importance is still attached to the magazine, even in the face of both implied criticism and open attacks. “Rankings,” Brown says, “often don’t tell the full story. That is why it’s so important to understand the criteria behind the rankings to determine their usefulness.” But while Dean Moody-Adams is quick to point out the “inherently limited and fickle nature” of the rankings, she is also quick to appreciate that “the strength of our academic programs and the quality of student experience are positively recognized.”
Should Columbia administrators protest more and stand up for the little guys, including the partner college next door, they may end up hurting Columbia’s own ranking. It’s a numbers game, one in which each player has a reluctant theoretical role. But in order to pass go, each college must play.