Lies and Fudged Facts in College Rankings

In one of the most widely-reported scandals in higher education recently, California’s Claremont McKenna College owned up on Monday to one of its senior administrators exaggerating its SAT score statistics to rankings organization U.S. News & World Report since 2005. Such a move has the potential to affect an institution’s standing in the high-profile rankings issued every year by the publication. The inflated SAT score fiasco is putting a spotlight on the issue of higher education institutions going to great lengths — even fudging the numbers or outright lying in the information they send to rankings organizations — in an effort to gain a more coveted position in such rankings.

Colleges and universities have tried to "game the system" in a number of ways over the years, according to the New York Times. This process might involve only including certain data that paints the school in a good light, twisting the rules in their favor, intentionally entering misleading information, or even attempting to manipulate the data through various means. One example was Iona College, an institution in New York that admitted last year that its employees had submitted false information about test scores, graduation rates, freshman retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates, and alumni giving, the Times pointed out. The law schools of Villanova University and the University of Illinois have also admitted misreporting some statistics, the Times said.

Admissions staff point out that some colleges postpone admission of students who get a lower score on the SAT until January, so that when they submit their reports in September, the average test scores will be higher, the article noted. Other colleges look for ways of getting more applications from students who are unlikely to be accepted, so they can report a lower acceptance rate.

Some means of getting more positive data out to rankings organization are more innocuous. In 2008, for example, Baylor University offered financial rewards in the form of bookstore credit to encourage students to re-take the SAT, and even offered merit scholarships to students who made a 50 point improvement, therefore helping to boost the college’s average SAT score, the New York Times reported at the time. Even so, the rewards represented a move on the university’s part to get the numbers more in its favor. Financial rewards are also sometimes provided as a motivator to bolster administrators’ commitment to boost the rankings. Arizona State University said its president would receive a $50,000 bonus if the university’s ranking improved with U.S. News, according to CBS News.

The senior administrator at Claremont McKenna College has since resigned when the discrepancies came to light after an internal investigation, according to the Associated Press. While no one at the college has provided a reason why the administrator would go to such lengths, some admissions officials have said that colleges face a great deal of pressure to become a top school in order to attract the nation’s top students, the AP story indicated.

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