Monday, February 6, 2012

Ranking Shenanigans – The Drivers behind the Manipulation Temptation

News broke last week that the U.S. News & World Report ninth ranked liberal arts college, Claremont McKenna College, has been fudging its reported incoming student SAT scores by ten to 20 points for the past six years. While you might not think that such a nominal overstatement in test performance would move the ranking needle materially (test scores are weighted 7.5% in the ranking formula), the inflated scores helped Claremont McKenna rise through the pack and break into the coveted top ten in 2011. Why such pressure on colleges to improve their place in the rankings pecking order, even to the extent that a highly recognized and respected admission dean would risk his job and career by perpetuating a fraud all of these years? A higher ranking translates into an increase in applications and higher yields (the number of accepted students who actually matriculate). Once colleges figured out that rankings can directly affect admission outcomes, the temptation to game the system became too much for some to resist.

After reading the Claremont McKenna news and speculation that many other colleges are finding ways to manipulate their numbers, I was struck by a thought; the group that most influences the rankings are not the colleges themselves, but rather the segment of the population that has come to rely on these rankings: parents and students. As much as I try to dissuade them, I do understand why parents focus and obsess over the low and still falling acceptance rates of the most selective colleges. Nevertheless, I encourage them to broaden their scope to include the many quality schools that are lower ranked and more robust in their admission numbers. Every time we rely on the U.S. News & World Report rankings as the quality standard bearer, we are perpetuating the misconceptions about excellence and motivating the actions that affect rankings. While reader perception of worth does not have its own separate weighting in the U.S. News & World Report formula the way that college peer opinion does, we are the ultimate drivers.

Think about this. If I use the rankings as my guide about where to apply, I, like everyone else who is employing the same skewed logic, will actually contribute to the ranking frenzy. The “top” colleges will draw more applications (good for rankings), have to reject a greater number of students (a huge boost for the rankings), which drives down their acceptance rates (a rankings game changer) and ultimately jacks up their yields (rankings home-run!). Never did I think that I would feel amazingly empowered by the realization that if I read and react to the U.S. News & World Report I could exercise such influence! Unfortunately, I am just one person. It is our collective action that will change this game.

Following Claremont McKenna’s disclosure last week, the finance magazine, Kiplinger, removed the school from its list of best buy colleges. One man erred in judgment and now this highly respected academic institution is no longer a smart educational investment? How can that be? Did anything else change at the school since last week? Sure, the average SATs are slightly lower than we thought and that, no doubt, will cause the college to fall in the 2012 rankings. Have we all been duped into thinking that Claremont McKenna was a better school than it really is? Perhaps…if you buy into the rankings.

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