When a Rank Is Wrong

A Columbia University math professor says U.S. News & World Report gave his school the wrong rank.

We all might wonder how Columbia could conclude that it spent more on instruction than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined. In addition, the average class size and the ratio of students to faculty were among what the math professor said were questionable statistics.

And yet, it all becomes plausible when we think of ranking criteria. Seemingly quantifiable, the standards for all ranking schemes become subjective when we see that the groups being ranked select different statistics. For example, Columbia included the instruction time its medical community received while other schools managed those numbers differently.

The different ranking criteria should make us skeptical when we look at lists of who is the best.

Ranking Criteria

#1 Denmark; #2 Slovenia

The Economist tells us which country’s economy fared best during the pandemic. Their ranking is based on GDP, household incomes, stock market performance, capital spending, and government indebtedness.

#1 Finland #2 Denmark

Based mostly on life evaluations from a Gallup World Poll, the criteria for the happiest country include healthy life expectancy, per capita GDP, and high social trust.

#1 Spain #2 Italy

Even selecting the healthiest countries can be subjective. To calculate its numbers, the categories looked at by the Bloomberg Global Health Index include health risks, malnutrition, and average life expectancy.

Our Bottom Line: Unintended Consequences

Because ranking matters, it leads to unintended consequences.

They even included the hot sauce that one college president sent to his colleagues. Hoping to publicize the entrepreneurial side of his school, the president of New Jersey’s Rowan University distributed bottles of his homemade Hazardous Hot Sauce to his peers. His goal was to elevate his reputation score.

For college ranking, on the supply side, it creates conformity. Demand also is affected when a student’s choices are constrained by the list. Similarly, whether looking at an economy, happiness, or health, scores skew what we think about a place. When they affect policies, they create unintended consequences.

Still, it might be fun for you to create your own country (mis) ranking at the OECD Better Life Index site.

My sources and more: The Columbia ranking story reminded me of the questions we have asked in past posts. They also nudged me to find a new perspective. So, I looked at The Economist, CNN, and Bloomberg. Finally, in a new book, former Reed College president Colin Diver tells us why ranking is really mis-ranking.

Originally published at https://econlife.com on March 25, 2022.

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Located at the intersection of current events, history, and economics, econlife® slices away all of the layers that make economics boring and complex.

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Econlife Team

Econlife Team

Located at the intersection of current events, history, and economics, econlife® slices away all of the layers that make economics boring and complex.

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