The news that Claremont McKenna College submitted false SAT scores for incoming freshmen to U.S. News & World Report (and other outlets, including the Department of Education) is causing a ripple of shock throughout higher education.
The shock is that the falsehoods were apparently deliberate. A senior admissions official resigned after taking responsibility for changing the results.
At first glance, the increases -- 10 to 20 points -- seemed relatively small. Could a boost of 10 to 20 points on the average SAT scores make a difference in the ranking of a college? Sadly, the answer is yes.
Robert Morse, who directs the U.S. News rankings, hasn’t said how much a difference such changes might make, but he noted in a column about the news that the magazine will recalculate the ranking when he gets the accurate scores. SAT scores represent 7.5 percent of the U.S. News ranking.
Consistently high SAT scores also influence the reputation of the school, and reputational surveys have a 22.5 percent weight in the total ranking.
Many factors determine where a school stands, but it seems likely that a few minor changes could shift a school’s position -- from, say, No. 12 to No. 9.
The difference in educational quality between such rankings would be nonexistent. There’s plenty of doubt whether the rankings actually measure quality at all.
But being in the top 10 would give a school an enormous public relations boost. And colleges are driven by public relations, although college presidents don’t call it that. Rather, the currency of higher education is “reputation.” Unlike private industry, where profit matters, prestige is everything for college administrators, faculty and fundraisers. It brings in the best students, more money and bragging rights for years to come.
By falsifying the figures, Claremont McKenna may have gone further than other schools, but it is far from alone in its desire to make itself look good through higher rankings.
Gaming the U.S. News system is common. Manipulation made news in 2009, when, at an academic meeting, a Clemson University staff member openly described ways the school had tried to boost its ranking. Those techniques had apparently been successful, noted Inside Higher Education, because the university had risen from 38th to 22nd in its U.S. News category over seven years.
Some of the methods included:
-- Increasing the number of small classes. Having many classes with fewer than 20 students boosts one’s ranking, even if it means making some large classes even larger.
-- Boosting the number of alumni donors. Because the indicator is the percentage of alumni who give, asking for $5 donations can boost the figures, even though those donations cost more to get than they add to the bottom line.
-- Low-balling the reputation of other schools. Some presidents indiscriminately claim on the reputation survey that their school’s reputation is higher than that of its peers.
Another technique to boost rankings is making the SAT optional for admission. Although colleges (such as Wake Forest and Smith) give a variety of reasons for the change in policy, one effect is to increase the average of the reported SAT scores. According to one study, students who don’t submit their SAT scores test between 100 and 150 points lower than those who do report their results. Keeping those scores out of a college’s average makes it look better.
What have we learned? For the public at large, including potential students and their parents, the lesson is to be skeptical about rankings.
The fact that this duplicity went on for six years at Claremont McKenna makes one wonder if officials at other schools may be doing the same thing.
But far more important than giving too much credence to rankings, the public should be more skeptical about our system of higher education. Those highly respected institutions, our colleges and universities, are composed of very human people. When the prestige of their institutions is on the line, those people can act in ways that are embarrassing and morally wrong.
(Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina.)
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