Emory scandal: Critics doubt college ratings

Misrepresentations emanate from schools’ high-stakes ‘selling’

College rankings are so important to the Taylor family that even fifth-grader Lauren studies them. The Atlanta girl, who dreams of oceangoing trips in research vessels, has already narrowed her search to a few schools.

Her dad, Winston Taylor Jr., said the family finds rankings useful but also takes them with a grain of salt. The father of three, including a high school sophomore, said he suspected the rankings were flawed even before Emory University disclosed last week that it intentionally submitted inflated data for them.

“I’ve always questioned the rankings’ validity,” Taylor said. “It’s marketing, and when we talk about marketing, it’s selling.”

Emory’s misrepresentation reignited a deep debate over college rankings. Even as many parents, students and college officials criticize the lists, U.S. News & World Report averages 15 million page views on its website when its new ranking comes out. The next edition will be released Sept. 12.

Critics say the lists can’t be trusted, especially because they rely on data supplied by the schools and go through little fact-checking. They challenge the notion that a mathematical formula can sum up a college — its campus culture, the accessibility of its teachers, its academic quality. Making a decision based on rankings also can lead a student to the wrong school, a potentially expensive lesson.

Many parents won’t even consider sending children to colleges that fail to earn high marks.

Colleges that nab a top spot advertise it in promotional materials. A strong ranking brings academic prestige, bragging rights and higher achieving students.

Some schools create policies to boost their standing, said Amanda Griffith, a Wake Forest University economics professor.

“They can fudge the data any way they want,” said Griffith, who has studied how students select colleges. “Colleges want to be ranked high, and students are under the very same pressure to go to the best school possible.”

There’s gaming of the numbers just short of wrongdoing, experts said. Baylor University in Texas faced criticism in 2008 for paying already admitted students to retake the SAT in hopes of boosting the college’s overall average and its rankings.

Emory hasn’t determined why and when the misreporting began, but experts noted the pressure to remain a Top 20 school in U.S. News. Emory has been in this tier for 19 years.

“There is pressure to lie about the data or manipulate it,” said Mark Schneider, a vice president with the American Institutes for Research. “Colleges say, ‘I want the best students in the country to apply,’ and the best way to do that is to be a Top 20 school.”

Defenders of the system say the rankings are valuable, allowing families to easily compare many schools and exposing students to schools they’ve never heard of.

U.S. News & World Report is the granddaddy of college rankings, but dozens of rankings groups measure higher education, including Forbes, Kiplinger and Princeton Review. These publications publish lists on most-wired campuses and school environmental policies and even quality of cafeteria food. Nearly every college can find some ranking to be proud of and promote, and many do.

Brian Kelly, U.S. News editor and chief content officer, said that when the magazine first published rankings nearly 30 years ago, the goal was to provide hard information on the complex and confusing world of higher education.

The group calculates rankings using test scores, faculty salaries, per-pupil spending and other data. It also relies on surveys that call on college officials and sometimes high school guidance counselors to rate other institutions’ academic programs.

“We are just giving people the numbers, and they make their own decisions,” Kelly said.

Cheating is rare, he said. The publication has ways to ensure accuracy, such as cross-checking information with different sources. Its site says faculty salaries are compared with information from the American Association of University Professors. Data on admissions, tuition, financial aid is checked against the National Center for Education Statistics, Kelly said.

Results still can be wrong, he acknowledged. Emory this month admitted that it sent faulty information to databases used by rankings publications and the national statistics center.

“Some of the data is checkable,” Kelly said. “But if somebody is intent on cheating — just like on Wall Street — it’s really hard to catch them.”

Emory said its new dean of admissions noticed the data discrepancy in May, which triggered an internal investigation. None of those responsible still work at Emory, officials said.

College officials guaranteed U.S. News that they provided accurate information for the September rankings.

“We’re certainly going to take a much closer look at their data,” Kelly said. Emory’s listing on the U.S. News website is now accompanied by an asterisk and notes that the school supplied incorrect data for the current college edition.

Emory isn’t the first school to send in false results. Iona College in New York and Claremont McKenna College in California recently admitted to it, as well.

Too many families depend on the rankings, said Joni Towles, a private counselor who advises metro Atlanta parents on college selection. Parents seem more concerned about them than students.

“I do spend a lot of my time trying to get beyond the rankings,” Towles said.

Jeffrey Stake, a law professor at Indiana University law school, for 14 years has run a website that warns of “ranking mania.”

“There are lies, damned lies, statistics and rankings,” the website says. He defined this mania as “paying too much attention to the rankings and looking for status vs. making the right fit for a person.”

The Taylors are not taking chances. As they eye colleges for Winston III, the high school sophomore, they’re taking summer trips to college campuses, combing the Web for insight and talking to counselors, administrators and current students.

Emory provided incorrect numbers for more than a decade, according to its own investigation.

The school reported SAT and ACT data for admitted students instead of enrolled students. That artificially inflated Emory’s test scores. The college also overstated how many of its incoming students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

U.S. News officials said the false reporting would not have changed Emory’s No. 20 ranking the past two years. It would have had a “small to negligible effect” in the several years prior, they said.

Kelly said they did not review a decade’s worth of rankings for Emory.

“They could have done things in the 1990s to establish themselves in the rankings and at some level they just wanted to stay in the top 20,” Kelly said.

Some colleges don’t blatantly cheat, but they take steps to boost results, experts said.

In 2009, an administrator at Clemson University said the school increased admission standards, hiked faculty salaries and instituted smaller classes — all to improve the school’s standing. Other schools increase student merit aid to attract better performers.

Then again, as Kelly of U.S. News observed, what’s wrong with lowering class sizes, attracting stronger professors and improving retention rates?

“If they’re following good educational practices, that’s not a bad thing,” he said.

Widdie Gordon and his mother, Chelsea, carefully chose the college for the high-schooler who wants to make films. Widdie, a junior at Hapeville Charter Career Academy, is taking college classes while in high school.

Mother and son visited several colleges, talked to school officials and students, sat in on classes — and checked the rankings.

When they saw some high rankings for Atlanta Technical College, that helped seal the deal.

It also made Widdie more nervous about attending. “I thought it would be challenging, that I would have to work harder,” he said.

As for the Taylor family, Lauren, the fifth- grader, is focusing on one college in Florida and another in California. She looked up the schools’ overall rankings and the standings of departments of study, her father said. Lauren also is pushing her dad for a trip to California next summer, so she can visit one of the schools.

Rankings Calculations

U.S. News & World Report says it uses qualitative measures that experts say indicate academic quality as well as its own research showing what matters. Each indicator can contain multiple parts. Percentages listed reflect the weighting used for “National Universities” the category that includes Emory University.

Undergraduate academic reputation: 22.5 percent -- The opinions of those who are in a position to judge a school’s academic excellence.

Retention: 20 percent -- This is the percentage of freshmen returning for sophomore year.

Faculty resources: 20 percent -- This category includes class size, faculty salaries and student-faculty ratio.

Student selectivity: 15 percent -- This includes acceptance rates, SAT and ACT scores and the proportion of students who are in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

Financial resources: 10 percent -- Spending per student on instruction, research and other related services. Excludes sports, dorms and hospital spending.

Graduation rate performance: 7.5 percent -- Shows the effect of programs and policies on graduation rates. Controls for spending and student characteristics.

Alumni giving: 5 percent -- This provides an indirect measure of student satisfaction.

Source: U.S. News & World Report, Sept. 12, 2011 explanation of calculations