Columbia reacts to ‘Worst Colleges’ ranking

By Assistant Campus Editor

Columbia’s reputation was called into question in late September  when Washington Monthly, a magazine that focuses on politics, published a list that ranked Columbia as the 11th-worst higher education institution in the country.

The magazine based its worst college rankings on a formula that looked at an institution’s net price, average student debt, default rate and graduation rate at all nonprofit, for-profit and public colleges in the country.

The College Scorecard states that Columbia’s net price is $26,414 per year. Undergraduate Columbians typically have $27,000 in federal loans after four years with a 14.8 percent default rate. The graduation rate is listed at 40.8 percent.

Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst at New America foundation and the author of the Washington Monthly article, said all the information used for the list was found on government databases that aggregate statistics supplied to the U.S. Department of Education by the college.

Lists of best colleges are commonly found around the time prospective students start applying, but Miller said he wanted to start a  conversation that focuses on all aspects of college.

“If you’re picking amongst a small liberal arts school or a big research university, all of the top colleges are places where students are extremely likely to graduate and they’re going to get a degree from an institution that is nationally recognized,” Miller said. “[However], there are a lot of colleges out there where students are a lot less likely to graduate, and they’re going to end up with a lot more student loan debt and a higher risk of not being able to pay back that money.”  

Miller said he does not think his list will help determine where an incoming freshman decides to attend college because there are a lot of different factors that affect such a decision.

“[Our goal was] to point out that it’s actually a lot harder to figure out the worst colleges versus the best ones because the best colleges are sort of the best at everything with the notable exception of socioeconomic and racial diversity, but they sit on a lot of money and they’re selective like that,” Miller said. “When you’re talking about the worst colleges, there’s not a clear-cut answer and it’s hard to figure out exactly how you’d identify those.”

Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Success, disagreed with the way Miller calcualted the list, however. 

“Three of the four measurements are affordability issues,” Kelly said. “By [Washington Monthly’s] definition, the richer a school is and the richer a student body is means you’re ranked higher and that has nothing to do with the education given to students. A college brings great value to its students, both in the classroom and beyond, so to be listed as one of the worst colleges indicates a flawed methodology that does not measure the education students receive,” Kelly said.

Kelly also said a flaw in the list is the use of outdated information. 

“That information is from several years ago, so it’s not capturing the Columbia of today,” Kelly said. “We are already a very different institution than two or three years ago.”

However, Miller said he received the government data from the most up-to-date and accurate source and could not manipulate the data.

Kelly also said that the measurements were not what need to be looked at whilst judging a college. He said the college’s numbers have recently seen an improvement making it not as plausible for Columbia to be placed on such a list.

“Our graduation rate went up [this past year] from 40.8 percent and it is now 42.9 percent,” Kelly said. “The retention rate from freshman to sophomore went up 6.6 percent.”

The increase could be attributed to the college’s recent push to move away from generous admissions to being more selective, which could account for the increased retention rate, Kelly said.

“We have become more demanding of students as they enter, so we have been more selective,” Kelly said. “We have to make sure they are ready for what we offer them and that they’re not going to incur loan debt if they’re not ready.”

 Kelly said Columbia’s net price has also dropped by 10 percent because of the availability of scholarships. The funding of scholarships has increased from about $11 million to $32 million, Kelly said.

But the increase in scholarship money is reflective of a trend of increase in the cost of attendance. Over the past two years, Columbia’s tuition has also increased. This year, the cost of attendance was $22,884, excluding housing and supply costs. This is a 7.35 percent increase from the cost of attendance in 2012.

Kelly said Miller was wrong to place Columbia on the list because Miller did not take overall education and student success into account when he compiled his list. 

The National Survey of Student Engagement shows a less than one percent decrease in the levels of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning and having a supportive campus environment recently, but indicates that the college performs above average compared to other institutions, according to the NSSE.

“Success is determined by two things,” Kelly said. “[They are] if a student graduates and whether they are ready to compete in the market place.”

Miller said the college’s retention and graduation rates speak for themselves.

Several students’ opinions are more empathetic to Miller’s point. Mitchell Ransdell, a junior cinema art + sciences major, said the value of some of his classes are not worth the tuition.

“I wonder if anyone at this school would [say that it is], to be honest,” Ransdell said. “Just sitting in class the other day, I thought, ‘I’m paying hundreds of dollars for this single class,’ and it’s like I would never actually want to pay for this. If I were in a store and someone was like, ‘Would you like to buy this class, sir?’ I would say, ‘F— you. Get outta here!’”

Bernard Mull Jr., a junior graphic design major, expressed similar sentiments, pointing to the curriculum not being reflective of the cost.

 “Gen eds take up much more time than my major classes and I didn’t come here to spend all of this money to learn what kids in high school are learning,” Mull said. 

Bret Hamilton, a senior cinema art + sciences major, said he is heavily burdened by debt. He said he was aware that his field would be competitive, when he enrolled at Columbia, but he still worries about paying his loans back.

“It causes me a lot of emotional distress to know that I’m going into a field where work isn’t always guaranteed and I’m gonna be paying back these loans for who knows how long,” Hamilton said. “It’s really troubling.”

Hamilton said he has had several close friends leave the college because of their inability to afford the rising cost of tuition.

Ryder Douglas, a former journalism student, left the college after his freshman year in 2012. Despite receiving scholarship aid, Douglas was unable to stay at the college because of the cost.

“[Columbia needs] better scholarships,” Douglas said. “I got the Presidential Scholarship and it was useless despite the fact that is was the biggest scholarship you could get.”