The U.S. News Ranking of Columbia’s Online Engineering Programs

Michael Thaddeus
Professor of Mathematics
April 2022

In an earlier article, I documented a pattern of inaccurate or misleading statements made by Columbia University to U.S. News and World Report in support of its National Universities ranking. The purpose of this note is to show that such misrepresentation by Columbia is not confined to the portrayal of its undergraduate programs.

The Columbia Video Network (CVN) is a distance education initiative of Columbia Engineering. Since 1986, students at remote sites have been able to take graduate courses from Columbia Engineering through CVN. Course lectures were originally provided on videocassette but are now viewed online. Students receive Columbia course credit and can even complete a Columbia M.A. degree without ever setting foot on campus. Total enrollments in CVN have grown dramatically in recent years, from 151 students eight years ago to 356 today.

[Note: click on any image to visit the web page from which it comes.]

For the last five years in a row, CVN has been ranked #1 nationally by U.S. News in its Best Online Master’s in Engineering Programs ranking. Columbia advertises this ranking prominently on social media and on its web pages.

These pages also emphasize that the degrees granted by CVN are “indistinguishable” from Columbia degrees granted to in-person students, even though the experience of studying online is, of course, profoundly different from studying in person. The point appears to be that prospective employers will not know that a CVN degree was obtained online.

Many components of the U.S. News ranking are indices measuring aspects of administrative support, like those shown below. They are difficult to verify independently. In any case, they seem tangentially related, at best, to the intellectual value of the degree program.

Other major components include the selectivity of the program and its reputation with high-ranking officials at other schools, both of which are factors that U.S. News has been de-emphasizing in its flagship ranking.

One component of the ranking has more to do with academic quality as it is commonly understood, and that is class size. Although class size counts for only 3.75% of the overall ranking, it has clearly been a key factor in providing Columbia with the competitive edge which has made it #1 year after year.

This is because Columbia far surpasses all of its rivals in this category. Columbia reported that fully 88.7% of its classes enroll under 10 students. This is an astonishing figure, miles ahead of the competition. No other school ranked in the top ten even breaks 60% in this category. The nearest runners-up are Illinois, reporting 59%, and Purdue, with 37.7%.

How, then, does the Columbia Video Network manage to keep its class sizes so incredibly small?

The answer is obvious from a glance at the listings of CVN courses in Columbia’s Directory of Classes. Online class sections, typically very small, are listed alongside in-person sections of the same course, taught by the same instructor and typically much larger. In the example shown below, an in-person Robotics class with 101 students was accompanied by an online section with 5 students. Many more examples may be viewed here.

Engineering faculty with whom I discussed the matter told me that, despite the separate sections listed in the Directory of Classes, online and in-person students are in the same section for all practical purposes. Online students appear on the same course roster as in-person students. They are given exactly the same lectures (which are recorded during the in-person section). They do the same assignments and take the same exams. They are taught by the same instructor and graded by the same teaching assistants. Although some additional compensation is provided, the additional online “sections” are not credited toward the teaching loads of instructors or teaching assistants.

Even the CVN course directory gives the impression that in-person and online students are enrolled in the same classes. It links to the course pages for the large in-person sections, not the small online sections, and it says only that “CVN call numbers are different from on-campus call numbers,” rather than specifying that the course sections are distinct.

CVN's reporting to U.S. News, likewise, gives the impression that its students enroll in the same sections as other students. In response to the prompt “Classes include campus-based students,” it explicitly states “Yes.”

The full text of the U.S. News survey for online engineering programs is not publicly available, but its survey for another online program clearly states that “programs in which distance education students are integrated with face-to-face students must include face-to-face students in reporting.” It reiterates the point by adding, “when determining the size of your…program’s class sections include all students at your institution registered in those classes.”

(Incidentally, CVN's earlier reporting to U.S. News is perhaps even more dubious — for it claimed very small class sizes even before its separate online “sections” existed, when the only classes listed were the much larger on-campus sections. In 2014, for example, it claimed to U.S. News that its average class size was only 5 students, even though its small online “sections” were not set up until Fall 2018, as a perusal of back Directories of Classes will demonstrate.)

Since most lectures for CVN students are delivered “asynchronously” — meaning that they are not viewed live, but rather as prerecorded videos — these students have no opportunity to ask questions or otherwise participate during lectures. Nor do they receive the extra personal attention from instructors that students in small classes would, since they are taught as part of a much larger in-person section. That is to say, CVN students reap none of the purported benefits of small class sizes. Their class sizes are small in name only.

The class size figures on which Columbia’s #1 ranking rests are therefore meaningless. There is nothing to prevent Columbia, in fact, from further subdividing CVN sections into smaller sections. Without making any changes to instructional arrangements, or altering the educational experience in any way, it could thus make CVN “class sizes” as small as it wished.

According to a post on Reddit, one of the typical questions in the admissions interview for the Columbia Engineering M.A. is “What does integrity mean to you?”

It would be worth asking the same question of whoever decided to place CVN students in very small pro forma sections, report these small class sizes to U.S. News, and then use the resulting #1 ranking as the centerpiece of CVN’s marketing strategy.

For several years, CVN has been led by Soulaymane Kachani in his role as Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. During this time, there has been talk of expanding Columbia’s online degree offerings, perhaps to include the liberal arts. Professor Kachani himself has publicly speculated about “the possibility of maybe first experimenting with online courses within the School of General Studies before going into a fully online bachelor’s degree.” On the same occasion, he spoke about the “program quality” of online degree programs in terms reminiscent of the U.S. News criteria, emphasizing features like “advising,” “course design,” and “career placement” rather than the intellectual value of the course offerings.

On February 25 of this year, Columbia’s provost, Mary Boyce, announced Professor Kachani’s promotion to the rank of Senior Vice Provost, enlarging his portfolio to include projects across the University. She praised him as “an outstanding educator, innovator, and administrator” and credited him with “propelling online engineering programs at Columbia to be ranked first in the nation for the past five years.” In his new role, she said, he will “spearhead a new initiative that will enable the University to accelerate the expansion of its innovation in online and hybrid offerings.” Meanwhile, the report of a Task Force convened and chaired by Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, has recommended restructuring the Committee on Instruction, thereby streamlining the approval process for new courses and degree programs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It seems only a matter of time, therefore, before more programs like the Columbia Video Network are set up elsewhere in the University.