No one was happy to read President Gann’s email on Monday morning. Nor were they thrilled with the articles in the LA Times and the New York Times on Monday night. The revelation that Dean Vos had been inflating the SAT scores of incoming freshmen provoked a number of questions among the student body. There was one question, however, that cut the deepest: why would a member of our admissions department risk his career to inflate the median SAT scores of the freshmen class by only a few points?

Unfortunately the answer is obvious, and cringe-worthy: U.S. News & World Report National Liberal Arts College Rankings.

Claremont McKenna College has been rising on this list—and other lists—for some time now. The yearly reports have been big news on campus: we glorify falling admissions rates and drool when Forbes ranks us higher than Yale. We post on our Facebook walls about how we fared relative to other competitive colleges. We put flashy banners on our homepage telling us where we stand. The 5th and 6th lines of President Gann’s biography on the college’s website list the school’s ratings and its admissions selectivity ranking.

The administration is obsessed with our placement on an arbitrary scoreboard, and many of us students have joined the self-congratulatory bandwagon. We find ourselves today in an environment so focused on rankings that a senior admissions officer decided that a one-percent fudge was worth his career.

Shame on Mr. Vos, but he does not deserve all the blame.

Monday’s announcement was a wake-up call. Yes, these types of rankings games must be watched more closely. Yes, everyone involved should see the door. But the administration must also address the fact that the incentive to cheat at these games in our community seems to be unusually high. Beyond firing those responsible for cheating, the administration must address both the larger system of college rankings and its attitude towards our own ratings.

The college continues to insist on measuring itself by metrics calculated by people who have never eaten in Collins dining hall. We have an unusual and unhealthy obsession with moving up that list. It must stop now. If the administration continues to see us only in numbers, we will continue to bleed integrity. CMC will win the game. But we will lose ourselves.

Why would President Gann care what U.S. News and World Report thinks about our professors? The answer is simple: high rankings lead to better students, better professors, more money for the school and better jobs waiting for us after graduation. High rankings are good—and we can measure them. How can the college possibly be asked to ignore them?

It can’t really. Somehow, we have to attempt to strike a balance between caring and obsessing about our reputation as an institution. Unfortunately, this is an issue that every college community and every admissions department in the country must confront.

Why? Because the college ranking system is broken.

We know this intuitively. Measuring Harvey Mudd College on paper with Claremont McKenna on paper is like asking a blind man to compare apples and oranges. If a high school senior were to ask you which of the two schools she should attend, telling her the square footage of Kravis or the SAT score statistics of Mudd’s freshmen would be silly. Yet these are the very numbers that colleges around the country let rule the decisions they make at the very highest levels. These statistics are not inherently important; the ranking system makes them important. That’s ridiculous.

Once a school has been named among the top 20 schools in the nation, it should not be ranked against its peers. The differences between schools at this level come from the different focuses and strengths of each school. Publishing rankings only encourages an obsession with prestige: a gaggle of kindergartners standing on tippy toes trying to see who is the tallest.

Undeniably, the actions of anyone involved with this scandal are irredeemable and absolutely inexcusable.

But the admissions department was acting on the pressures it felt by the rankings fixation of this administration. “I put pressure on myself to drive up the rankings because it is in my office’s best interest,” Dean Vos told the Claremont Port Side in an interview in 2008, a year in which scores were inflated. This administration has created an environment that passively encouraged cheating.
But the administration was acting on outside pressures too—pressures caused by a broken ratings system that we know has no baring on the quality of this education. A solution, then, to properly address what happened will be complex.

U.S. News and World Report should admit that what it publishes is based on funny math from essentially all participants. And at some point, this college should stop sending data to institutions that rank colleges. More realistically in the short term, however, this administration needs to address its ranking mania. The resignation of Mr. Vos should not be the end of this fiasco. From here, the first step is to admit we have a problem.

I didn’t come to Claremont McKenna College because it’s number nine. I came here for the people, the classes and the professors. This won’t affect those things. But we must understand that it is worth reflecting on this situation further. For those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

And we are better than this, CMC.

  • Wade V.

    Great article McQueen. I particularly liked this part:
    “Once a school has been named among the top 20 schools in the nation, it should not be ranked against its peers. The differences between schools at this level come from the different focuses and strengths of each school. Publishing rankings only encourages an obsession with prestige: a gaggle of kindergartners standing on tippy toes trying to see who is the tallest.”

    That’s a great idea, and in theory it should work. But so long as someone out there is ranking the colleges (whether it’s Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, or a mega-blogger), there will always be the clamor of our culture to know: “Who’s FIRST?”

    Rankings matter — you distilled it well: students, professors, endowment, jobs. It’s a cycle that feeds into itself. Schools with a top ranking should find it easier to stay on top. I believe that we got to number 9… number 9… number 9, by the outstanding culture that we foster on campus. The leadership of that culture, the administration and the students alike, need to make sure that we protect what we value most.

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  • stephen

    Great article.  I especially liked the part about the stuff.

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  • Connor Barclay

    Absolutely fantastic article, Sean. Way to hit all the key points, and with vigor and poise.

    • What?

      With vigor and poise? What does that even mean?

  • reiscakes

    irredeemable and absolutely inexcusable? that seems draconian, and not in the spirit of your article. Mr. Vos seems to be the only one giving it to us strait (reminds me of John Dean in the Watergate scandal).

    instead of serving Mr. Vos and his peers a condemnation, a critique of our institutional reaction (including yours) might better serve and draw less comparisons to that of a corporation. Higher education is more than a business.

  • Anonymoose

    That’s BS. If I’m paying 50k a year, it’d better be top 10.