WHAT OTHERS SAY: Beware the cheating colleges

Friday, February 8, 2013 | 11:21 a.m. CST

A quick way for schools to climb in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings is to attract more applicants, enroll fewer of them and consistently show higher scores on the SAT. It’s a perverse formula that colleges and universities subject themselves to so they can appear “selective.”

Now it appears some employees of highly regarded schools were so swept away by the rankings game that they doctored their data.

Tulane University in New Orleans submitted inflated SAT scores for applicants to its graduate school. George Washington University in Washington, D.C., raised the class rank of its incoming freshmen. Claremont McKenna College in California, Emory University in Atlanta and Bucknell University in Pennsylvania have also acknowledged problems with the information submitted to U.S. News & World Report in recent years.

With no independent verification of information from the colleges, it’s possible other schools also submitted faulty numbers.

All of the known instances appear to have been the work of individual employees or perhaps unintentional mistakes in handling data.

Still, institutions that pride themselves on academic integrity take a hit when they are found to have cheated.

“Best college” lists published by U.S. News, the Princeton Review and others can be a useful early step for students and parents trying to navigate the bewildering application process.

But besides setting off an unhealthy volume-based admissions race at many universities, they have the potential to lead students and families astray.

A survey of college admissions officials last year by Inside Higher Ed, an online news source, found only 14 percent of respondents thought rankings help students find a college that’s right for them. More than half disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Rankings and college admissions as a whole pay too much attention to the front door of the campuses — how many apply, who gets admitted — but pay too little attention to the back door. Freshmen retention rates, graduation rates and information on graduates’ success in obtaining jobs are much more useful information than an elite university’s boast that it accepted only a single-digit percentage of its applicants.

Despite their flaws, college rankings are a big business and likely to be around for awhile. Their authors need to work with schools on ways to ensure their credibility.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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