Any love-hate relationship must have its share of pain, so the academic world, in its ambivalent obsession with college rankings, is suitably dismayed by news that an elite college, Claremont McKenna, fudged its numbers in an apparent bid to climb the charts.
Dismayed, but not quite surprised. In fact, several colleges in recent years have been caught gaming the system — in particular, the meticulously watched U.S. News & World Report rankings — by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data or just lying.
In the most egregious recent example, Iona College in New Rochelle, north of New York City, acknowledged last fall that its employees had lied for years not only about test scores, but also about graduation rates, freshman retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates and alumni giving.
Other institutions have found ways to manipulate the data without outright dishonesty. In 2008, Baylor University offered financial rewards to admitted students to retake the SAT in hopes of increasing its average score. Admissions directors say that some colleges delay admission of low-scoring students until January, excluding them from averages for the class admitted in September, while other colleges seek more applications to report a lower percentage of students accepted.
Claremont McKenna, according to Robert Morse, the director of data research at U.S. News, is "the highest-ranking school to have to go through this publicly and have to admit to misreporting." This year, U.S. News rated it as the nation’s ninth-best liberal arts college.
There is no reason to think the U.S. News rankings are rife with misinformation, and the publication makes efforts to police the data, adjust its metrics and close loopholes.
But repeated revelations of manipulation show the power the rankings have taken in the minds of prospective students, their guidance counselors, parents, the alumni considering donations, the professors weighing job offers — and, of course, the colleges themselves.
"The reliance on this is out of hand," said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president who oversees admissions at DePaul University in Chicago. "It’s a nebulous thing, comparing the value of a college education at one institution to another, so parents and students and counselors focus on things that give them the illusion of precision."
The mixed feelings in the academic world were summed up in a report last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling: Most college admissions officers and high school counselors have a low opinion of the U.S. News rankings, yet they use the published material, whether to gather information about other schools or to market their own.
Claremont McKenna, part of the Claremont Colleges cluster outside Los Angeles, acknowledged Monday that a senior officer had resigned after admitting that he had inflated the average SAT scores given to U.S. News since 2005.
People briefed on the matter identified the officer as Richard C. Vos, vice president and dean of admissions, who once said, "We don’t play yield games," referring to the practice of encouraging unqualified applicants who can be rejected to make a college seem more competitive.
Vos, whose name was removed from the school’s online roster of administrators over the weekend, declined to comment Monday night and he did not return calls Tuesday.
SAT score averages are also reported to credit rating firms and the U.S. Department of Education, which is looking into Claremont McKenna’s actions, said Justin Hamilton, the department’s press secretary. He said the department could impose fines and other penalties for supplying misinformation, but rarely did, particularly if the college brought the problem to light on its own.
Morse, of U.S. News, said he and a team of four to six people verify much of the information that colleges supply, comparing it with databases from other sources, and that they perform a service in making the data public. But he conceded that his publication was probably at least part of the reason schools have lied.
Iona’s case was extreme; U.S. News ranked its undergraduate college 30th among "regional universities" in the Northeast, but estimated that with correct data it would have dropped to 50th.
Also last year, the law schools of Villanova University and the University of Illinois acknowledged that they had misreported some statistics; Villanova conceded that its deception was intentional, while Illinois did not say. And at the United States Naval Academy, famous for its honor code, a professor recently accused administrators of inflating the number of applicants, which the academy has denied. In 2009, a number of institutions were found to be inflating their percentages of full-time professors — another criterion used in ranking systems.
The impact and extent of Claremont McKenna’s cheating remains unclear. In a statement to the college staff and students, the president, Pamela B. Gann, wrote, "Although the degree of inaccuracies varied over time, we understand that the reported critical reading and/or math SAT scores were generally inflated by an average of 10-20 points each."
Morse said that without more precise information, he could not measure how such a change might have altered the college’s ranking, but it might have made the difference in cracking the top 10 of liberal arts colleges, a bragging right that Claremont McKenna reached this year for only the third time.
In the U.S. News rating system, explained in detail on its website, SAT scores account for 7.5 percent of the ranking. More heavily weighted criteria include academic reputation, student retention, faculty resources and the school’s finances.Claremont McKenna’s reputation has risen markedly — as recently as 1990, it was not in the U.S. News top 20. But it is often conscious of the comparison with its neighbor, Pomona College, which U.S. News rated fourth among liberal arts colleges.
Bruce J. Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona until 2010, said of the rankings, "They’re not benign instruments," but conceded that they are easy for a college to fall back on as evidence of its status. "The pressure is real," he said. "God forbid you go down in those numbers."
Vos had been dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna since 1987. "He was always one of the people that I considered one of the good guys in the profession," said Ralph Figueroa, director of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy, a private day school in New Mexico.
In her Monday statement, Gann, the college president, said Claremont McKenna discovered the discrepancy in reported SAT scores and conducted an internal review, during which one senior administrator stepped forward to take sole responsibility.
On the campus Tuesday, students said they were unhappy with the news, but not greatly concerned, and proud of the college for making it public.
"I don’t worry about the rankings or how this will affect them, because they tend to be pretty arbitrary," said Blake Bennett, a senior who has volunteered in the admissions office. "They change from year to year in order to keep selling books. Working in admissions, we pay attention to them, although we wish we didn’t have to. It’s just sort of a sad state of American colleges and higher education."