With the release of U.S. News and World Report’s university rankings, Columbia University outranked Penn for the first time in recent memory.
The report, which came out in mid-August, ranked Columbia fourth — four spots ahead of its ranking last year. Penn dropped from fourth to fifth this year and tied with Stanford University for the second year in a row.
Steven Goodman, educational consultant at Top Colleges, said there are two reasons why Columbia appears to have “jumped out of the blue.”
In addition to long-established criteria, this year’s ranking relied on two new components: graduation rates and the opinions of high school college counselors. Both favored Columbia, according to Goodman.
The ranking committee looked at the difference between expected and actual size of graduating class. Since Penn has been a “much stronger” school in the last 20 years, it has a smaller graduation differential than Columbia, Goodman explained.
“It’s almost like an Olympic athlete,” he said. “When someone who wins three gold medals was expected to win four, their exceptional accomplishment is almost disappointing. By contrast, when someone who isn’t slated to do well wins two gold medals, the achievement seems admirable.”
One of the other main reasons for Columbia’s success has to do with its location in New York City. For the first time, college counselors’ opinions were included in the assessment ranking, and these counselors expressed their students’ increasing interest in the city over the last decade.
“Urban institutions have recently enjoyed a great renaissance,” Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said. Columbia began experiencing a real shift in the early 1990s as the school began promoting New York as a resource. Furda, who is beginning his third year at Penn, worked in admissions at Columbia from 1991 through 2008.
Director of IvySelect College Consulting Michael Goran believes rankings aren’t actually that important to most students.
“The general prestige of a top-20 school factors into some students’ analysis, but beyond that point, they’re not scrutinizing these numbers,” he said.
Furda agreed but added that international students in particular strongly consider rankings in their college decisions.
“Disproportionally, the report carries greater weight further away,” Furda said. Parents of international students sometimes only pay for an expensive American education if their child is accepted into one of the top five schools, for example.
At the end of the day, however, Furda, Goodman and Goran all encourage students to look past the numbers.
“The rankings generally influence students to a degree, but thankfully once we get past the numbers we really do look at what schools are about, what schools are a better fit based on an array of factors,” Goran said. “It really is silly to base a school on what number it is.”