Gaming the Rankings: Not as Rare as You Might Think

Until a few days ago, it was easy to complain that Claremont McKenna College didn’t get the attention it deserved. After last week, most students are probably wishing for some of that former anonymity. CMC’s name has been splashed across the New York TimesBusiness Week, and everything in between after the revelation of SAT data manipulation by a member of the administration was revealed on Monday. Cameras from local news crews dotted the campus last Tuesday, and students’ names have been popping up in national news articles. The misconduct of the senior administration official is both upsetting and novel in its character, but it is not entirely unprecedented. CMC isn’t the first school to try to cheat the system. The recent transgressions on the part of the administration fit in to a wider trend of schools bending to a tremendous pressure to rise in the rankings.

In a New York Times article, Richard Perez-Peña pointed to a number of other schools involved in similar scandals. Last year, Iona College of New Rochelle, New York admitted to lying about “graduation rates, freshman retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates and alumni giving.”  Similar incidences were reported at both Villanova University and the University of Illinois. Even the United States Naval Academy has been accused of playing with their admissions figures. CMC may be the current focus of collegiate dishonesty charges, but there exists a clear problem in the industry.

Other schools hope to improve their rankings through more legitimate, yet decidedly underhanded tactics.  The Los Angeles Times discussed a few of these common tactics in a Wednesday editorial. Some schools, it explained, allow students to opt-out of releasing their SAT scores. One school, Baylor University, offered monetary incentives to retake the SAT after their acceptance in hopes that they might score better. We’ve seen CMC shape its policies around rank performance before: just ask any student who has been unable to join a class capped at nineteen students. In its evaluation, U.S News and World Report uses the number of classes with 1-19 students as a measurement of "Faculty Resources" at different colleges and universities.

Rankings and statistics are often the standard by which prospective students compare colleges and the metric by which colleges judge their performance. It can be easy to get caught up in the numbers but, as the LA Times emphasized in their article, “Colleges and public schools are under pressure to look good, which means they must also ramp up efforts to ensure that's done ethically.” We are talking about two big problems here.  First, it is essential that the higher education industry recognizes and addresses the existence of an unhealthy pressure for schools to try to game the rankings.  More importantly, CMC, and other schools like it, must put in place mechanisms to ensure that wrongful manipulation of data cannot happen again.

If there was any question that these shadowy strategies to boost one's rankings simply aren't worth it, CMC's misconduct has already led to its removal from Kiplinger's Best Values in Private Colleges list from the 2011-2012 year.  CMC had been ranked 18th on the list, a fantastic selling point for the school, but now its removal serves as a ringing condemnation rather than a sign of merit.

Let’s not forget, rankings matter, and in many ways the school has benefited from its increasing renown, including its impressive admission statistics. But it is clear that the higher education industry, including CMC's administration, has developed an unhealthy fixation, and it is starting to hurt the students who should be its actual focus.