May 8, 2013

Gaming the System of College Rankings

By Gordon Schnell

It is that time of year again when hundreds of thousands of high school seniors across the country are deep in deliberation as to where they will go to college.  For many of these students (and their parents), weighing heavily into their ultimate decision is where these colleges stand in the still highly influential U.S. News and World Report rankings of best colleges.  While routinely the subject of much criticism and scorn, this annual ranking remains for many the gold-standard for grading our institutions of higher learning.  So much so that according to a recent report in ProPublica, many universities are taking extreme measures to improve their ranking.  Some are even engaging in downright fraud.

Here is a rundown of the principal ways through which, according to ProPublica, some colleges are trying to game the system:

  • Abbreviated Applications.  Also known as “fast apps,” these are applications that require very little effort on the part of the prospective student.  They are often prefilled with student information and do not require an essay.  They may even dispense with the customary application fee.  The benefit to the college is that it facilitates a larger pool of applicants to “super-charge application numbers” which is one of the key factors that goes into grading how selective a college is.  Having more applications drives up a college’s score because, in what some would say is a perverse mutation in American education, the more people a school rejects, the better the school is considered.
  • The Common Application.  This is an application that is shared by roughly 500 colleges and counting.  It allows the prospective student to merely fill out the one application and submit it to any participating school.  It serves as another easy way to boost the number of applications.
  • Early Decisions.  Many schools encourage students to apply “early decision” or “early action” which requires a commitment by the applicant to attend the university if accepted.  This is an attractive option for many students because the likelihood of early decision acceptance is usually disproportionately higher than it is through the regular application process.  It is also attractive for colleges because it increases their so-called “yield” rate, which is the percentage of students offered admission who choose to attend.  While this element is no longer factored into the official U.S. News rankings, it is still a statistic that colleges trumpet and that has significance to prospective students.
  • Preemptive Rejections.  This is another strategy to increase “yield” and involves preemptively rejecting those students most likely to turn down an offer.  No school wants to be anyone’s safety school, so many schools are taking into account the demonstrated interest a particular applicant shows in the school (through phone calls, visits, email inquiries, etc.) and saying no to those who are clearly more interested in going elsewhere.
  • Waiving Standardized Tests.  More and more colleges are moving in the direction of making optional standardized tests, like the dreaded SATs.  Many advocate this approach as a way to even out the playing field for those less advantaged students who for a variety of reasons may not perform particularly well on these tests.  There are two additional attributes of this approach.  It is another way to pump up the number of applicants.  And it skews upward the school’s average test score since those who perform poorly on these tests are the ones most likely to withhold them if given the option.
  • Outright Fraud.  Several schools have taken an even more direct approach to beefing up their numbers.  They have simply made stuff up.  George Washington University, Emory University and Claremont McKenna College are just three recent examples of schools that have submitted to U.S. News inflated student grades or test scores to boost their rankings.  See GWU Caught Cheating in Coveted U.S. News College Rankings.  This kind of misreporting may be more widespread than most people realize.  At least that was what came out of a survey released last fall by Inside Higher Ed where roughly 90 percent of the college admissions directors surveyed stated their belief that more schools are cheating than we know about.

So, prospective college students be warned.  Make sure your college selection decisions are based on full and complete information.  The U.S. News Rankings may certainly provide you with some useful information on the prestige and quality of the schools you are considering.  At the same time, it would be wise to look behind the rankings for the most complete picture on what a particular university has to offer and whether it is everything it is chalked up to be.

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If you would like more information or would like to speak to a member of Constantine Cannon’s whistleblower lawyer team, please click here.

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