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Misreported data raises questions about college rankings

Tulane University officials were preparing to send statistics to U.S. News & World Report for its annual graduate school rankings when they noticed something peculiar in early December: sharp drops in admissions test scores and applications to their business school.

Their curiosity became alarm and then embarrassment, as the New Orleans university discovered and disclosed that the business school’s admissions figures from previous years had been falsified. Soon afterward, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania announced that for several years it had reported inflated SAT scores for incoming students.

These and similar revelations in the past year have come from Claremont McKenna College in California, Emory University in Atlanta and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In each case, the highly regarded schools acknowledged that they had submitted incorrect test scores or overstated the high school rankings of their incoming freshmen.

At a time of intense competition for high-achieving students, the episodes have renewed debate about the validity of the U.S. News rankings, which for three decades have served as a kind of Bible for parents and students shopping for colleges.

Much of the information colleges present about themselves to U.S. News, other analysts and the federal government is not independently verified. That makes it impossible to know how many may have misreported data over the years as they angle for prestige to stand out in a crowded market.

“Rankings have become omnipresent in higher education, and they have enhanced the competition among institutions,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents. “And in any highly competitive environment, there is always a temptation to cut corners.”

In some of the recent cases, college officials said an employee intentionally submitted inaccurate data. In others, it was unclear whether the mistake was intentional. GWU attributed its errors to a flaw in data-reporting systems that dated back a decade.

A survey of 576 college admissions officers conducted by Gallup last summer for the online news outlet Inside Higher Ed found that 91 percent believe other colleges had falsely reported standardized test scores and other admissions data. A few said their own college had done so.

“There’s definitely a widespread feeling that this goes well beyond those that have been caught or come forward,” said Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed’s editor.

U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly said the number of schools that have corrected their record is “a pretty small universe,” which he considers a sign that reporting problems are not pervasive. He said he would not be surprised if a few more cases emerged.

“If it was a stampede I would be surprised,” Kelly said, “and that might cause us to rethink some things.”

Kelly acknowledged that a string of revelations from five prominent colleges is unusual. But he said the disclosures should strengthen consumer confidence in U.S. News rankings because they show that schools take the data seriously.

“These are institutions that teach ethics,” Kelly said. “If they can’t keep their own house in order, they’ve got a problem. It’s their problem, not my problem.”

The U.S. News rankings, a major force in higher education since the 1980s, sort colleges and universities into various lists: best in the nation, best in a region, best value and so on.

The rankings are based on complex formulas that U.S. News invented and
that it tweaks from time to time. Inputs include surveys of college leaders and college counselors, as well as statistics on graduation rates, class
size, faculty salaries, alumni giving and admissions test scores. U.S. News says these formulas help consumers get information they need and want before they choose a school.

Critics contend the rankings are highly subjective and give students a misleading sense that the college experience can be boiled down to numbers. Some colleges refuse to participate in U.S. News surveys – and receive rankings anyway.

U.S. News has said that
92 percent of 1,391 ranked colleges and universities returned its surveys in 2012. Some colleges have refused to participate because they say the rankings are counterproductive.

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