Penn 'exaggerated' student-faculty ratio metrics used by U.S. News … – The Daily Pennsylvanian

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Penn likely reported inaccurate student-faculty ratio metrics used by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, multiple higher education experts told The Daily Pennsylvanian. 
Each year from 2006 to 2021, Penn disclosed the same student-faculty ratio of 6 undergraduate students per faculty member, or 6-to-1, in the Common Data Set — a report that hundreds of colleges produce each year and which U.S. News relies on for its widely used rankings. In 2022, however, Penn quietly submitted a revised Common Data Set after its original submission — and the student-faculty ratio has increased twice since then, to the current 8-to-1 ratio.
The higher education experts said that, combined with other criteria, a lower student-faculty ratio — which typically indicates smaller class sizes — can help a university rank higher in U.S. News. The experts spoke with the DP about the conflicting underlying metrics that Penn appears to have listed for its student-faculty ratio for over 15 years, and what it means for Penn’s U.S. News ranking.
This August, Penn Admissions published a “Stats and Facts” section on its homepage, which listed a 4-to-1 student-faculty ratio. The ratio, if accurate, would have placed Penn behind only the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology for the lowest ratio.
Graduate School of Education professor Bob Zemsky, the founding director of Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, said that Penn could only obtain a 4-to-1 ratio by including clinical faculty members at Penn hospitals in the total number of faculty teaching undergraduates.
Since clinical faculty do not teach medical students nor undergraduates, such a number is almost impossible to justify “for compliance purposes and external things” such as Penn’s Common Data Set, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research professor Victor Borden added.
To Borden, the significant difference between Penn’s officially reported ratio in the Common Data Set and the “exaggerated” ratio reported by Penn Admissions can be explained by a difference in priorities. Penn Admissions is likely more focused on “marketing” than measuring and might not be “so concerned with the facts,” he said.
In response to a request for comment about the 4-to-1 ratio, Penn Admissions updated the ratio on its website to 8-to-1.
“We apologize for the error,” an admissions spokesperson wrote to the DP. 
University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote, “Looks like this was simply a typo which has been corrected.”
However, Penn may have included additional inaccuracies in more widely referenced reports, like the Common Data Set — an annual product through which hundreds of universities report answers to a standardized set of data. 
Penn’s Common Data Set is compiled by the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Analysis. For more than a decade prior to 2021, the IR&A listed a ratio of one professor for every six students in the Common Data Set. 
During those years, Penn reported having no instructional faculty who taught exclusively in graduate programs. According to reporting guidelines, those professors would typically be excluded in student-faculty ratio calculations, since the ratio reported by the Common Data Set only applies to undergraduates.
When Penn first published its 2021-22 Common Data Set, the report was much like its predecessors. This version listed no faculty who teach exclusively to graduate students, according to a copy of the report obtained by the DP. The resulting data corresponded with a 6-to-1 ratio. 
One month later, Penn published a revised version of the same Common Data Set, and the ratio changed to 7-to-1. At the same time, Penn began indicating faculty who teach exclusively to graduate students — decreasing the number of undergraduate faculty and thereby increasing the ratio.
The 2021-22 report was revised in July 2022, months after Columbia University’s false reporting of data to the U.S. News was first uncovered by Columbia mathematics professor Michael Thaddeus.
“[Penn] made the change, basically, to add more faculty,” Thaddeus told the DP. 
Thaddeus said that, if true, Penn’s failure to report faculty who teach programs that are exclusive to graduate students was “indefensible.”
In response to a list of questions, Ozio pointed the DP to a footnote in Penn’s 2022-23 Common Data Set that stated the University was “reviewing and assessing all reporting processes and making adjustments where appropriate” following the “implementation of Workday, Interfolio, and Penn’s Next Generation Student Systems.”
“New conventions may impact trends in externally reported data and information,” the footnote reads. “These adjustments are applied to the historical data presented in IR&A’s internal tools to produce consistent trends over time when practical.”
Because U.S. News only lists universities’ standings for the most recent year, “you can’t go back and find a smoking gun” — or a misrepresentation that might have affected Penn’s ranking, Thaddeus said. 
According to recordings of U.S. News data points, which Borden compiled over almost two decades, a 6-to-1 ratio has been factored into Penn’s National Universities ranking since at least 2006. It also appeared in publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and remains in Penn’s own fact sheet as of the time of publication. 
Penn has made other subtle changes to how it reports data. In 2022 — before the University revised its Common Data Set that year — the University started reporting faculty members without “terminal degrees” such as a Ph.D. or Ed.D.— a metric that is ripe for interpretation, according to Borden. Borden said that law, design, and fine arts are all fields where doctorates are not the norm among faculty and where definitions can be fuzzier. 
“It sounds like [Penn was] doing something very similar to what Columbia was doing,” Thaddeus, who challenged Columbia’s attestation that all of its faculty held doctorates, said.
It is unclear to what extent Penn’s listing of all faculty as holders of “terminal degrees” affected Penn’s position in past years of U.S. News rankings. For the 2022-23 edition of the rankings, U.S. News wrote that the “proportion of a school’s faculty with terminal degrees” was given a weight of 3% in the overall formula. 
U.S. News recently announced that it would no longer consider the proportion of faculty with terminal degrees in its 2024 ranking for “logistical” reasons. For Thaddeus, the move showed that U.S. News — which he called a “sketchy operation” — was admitting that it “has no way to double-check” that metric. 
It is also unclear why Penn may have circulated inaccurate figures on the Common Data Set, which were then used by U.S. News and other rankings.
“The rankings are very much on the mind of institutional leaders and boards of trustees,” Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research Professor Emeritus Alexander McCormick said. “In a case where somebody is basically under pressure to improve their school standing, that does create some incentives to find ambiguities and room for interpretation in some of the definitions.”
No matter the intention, the inaccurate figures for Penn’s student-faculty ratio show that college rankings and the metrics they use lack logic, the experts said.
“There is no research that shows that student-faculty ratio matters much,” Borden said.
McCormick added that the ratio does not “tell you anything about the quality of instruction,” while Zemsky put it in starker terms, saying that the ratio “means absolutely nothing.” Thaddeus called it a “useless statistic.”
And the extent to which students even pay attention to the rankings, much less individual indicators, is minimal, Zemsky and Borden added.
Bryn Mawr College sophomore Esénia Bañuelos, who is taking courses at Penn, said that as someone who struggled with speaking up in class, small class sizes were key to her college decision. 
While Penn and Bryn Mawr have identical student-faculty ratios, “the fact that it was just a university in general” turned her away from Penn. 
College junior Samara Himmelfarb, a member of the College Cognoscenti — a group of Penn students who present the College of Arts and Sciences to prospective applicants — said that few students ask about the student-faculty ratio. 
“Let’s say someone’s pre-med, and they’ve never gotten an introductory biology lecture with 400 people. Then we might get questions,” she said. 
Since Penn is not a small liberal arts college, Borden said “8-to-1 is a pretty darn good ratio for a research university anyway.”
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