Emory University intentionally misreported data about its students for at least 12 years to groups that rank colleges, President Jim Wagner said Friday.
The deception meant that U.S. News & World Report, Peterson's and others that have long ranked Emory as one of the nation's top colleges did so with inflated data. Students and their families rely heavily on these rankings when deciding where to apply and enroll.
"They cooked the books and lied to students who think the university is better than it is," said Mark Schneider, vice president for new education initiatives with the American Institutes for Research. "What we are talking about is a violation of consumer choice."
Emory officials said they have no way of knowing if the college was over-ranked. Wagner said steps will be taken to make sure data is reported correctly, such as hiring an experienced data analyst.
But the problem is bigger than just rankings, Wagner said. Emory is one of the most respected colleges in the world and an institution in Atlanta.
"The real issue is about integrity," Wagner said in an interview. "It is a minor blow to our reputation."
Emory launched an investigation in mid-May after John Latting, the new dean of admissions, discovered discrepancies in some of the data reported to outside groups.
The three-month investigation found that Emory used SAT/ACT data for admitted students instead of enrolled students since at least 2000. Stephen Sencer, Emory's senior vice president and general counsel, said it was an "intentional decision" to report wrong data that overstated the school's test scores.
The report also found that Emory "may have" excluded the scores of the bottom 10 percent of students when reporting SAT/ACT scores, GPAs, and other information.
Two former admission deans and leadership in the Office of Institutional Research were aware of the misreporting, the investigation found. They no longer work at Emory, Sencer said. He declined to provide any additional information about personnel.
Some admissions staff expressed concern about the faulty information, but their supervisors told them to "continue misreporting data," Sencer said. The investigation found no indication that anyone in the president's, provost's or dean's offices knew data was being misreported or that they directed or coerced staff to do so.
"As an institution that challenges itself, in the words of our vision statement, to be 'ethically engaged,' Emory has not been well served by representatives of the university in this history of misreporting," Wagner wrote in a letter to the university. "I am deeply disappointed. Indeed, anyone who cares about Emory's reputation for excellence in all things must regret this news."
Fall semester begins Aug. 29 so many students didn't know about the false data reporting. Senior Jarquisha Hollings worried that freshmen and students considering Emory may look at the school differently.
"This is so surprising and disappointing," Hollings said. "I've been here for four years so I know Emory and this won't change what I think, but I don't like this being the first thing freshmen hear about our school."
Emory reported the erroneous data to a couple of statistical sources. One is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics. This data is self-reported and there are no penalties for filing false information, said Schneider, who used to direct the center. When the system reopens in September, Emory plans to correct its 2010 data and submit new information for 2011.
The information also went to the Common Data Set, a collaborative effort between colleges and publishers including the College Board, Peterson's and U.S. News.
Emory officials said they submitted correct data to that group in June for the next round of rankings, which could come out next month.
U.S. News Editor and Chief Content Officer Brian Kelly said they "deplore" the misreporting but were encouraged that Emory disclosed it. In an article on the publication's website Kelly said they will review the situation and that the faulty data "would not have changed the school's ranking in the past two years ... and would likely have had a small to negligible effect in the several years prior."
Emory ranked No. 20 last year and has been a top 20 school for the past 19 years in the U.S. News listing.
Emory isn't the first college to be in this situation. Last fall Iona College in New York told U.S. News that it falsified some of its data. A senior administrator resigned from Claremont McKenna College in California after admitting the school sent falsified exam scores to different ranking groups.
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,' " Schneider said. "It's worth a lot of money to be a top 20 college."
Sencer said it is still unknown why or when the use of faulty data started and officials are unsure exactly who started it. Sencer's office along with the Jones Day law firm conducted the investigation.
Provost Earl Lewis said the college has developed steps to improve data reporting, which will affect personnel, internal controls and the overall campus culture.
The changes include hiring a data analyst with "strong experience and specific training in statistical analysis" to work in the admission office and ensure accuracy, Lewis said.
Also, everyone working at Emory will be encouraged to report concerns to supervisors or the college's "trust line," a long-established anonymous and confidential reporting system administered by a group independent of the college. No one in the admissions office used this program to report the faulty data, officials said.
"We need for the entire university community to understand the importance of integrity," Lewis said.
Faulty data at Emory
Emory University disclosed Friday that an investigation found that university officials:
- Used SAT/ACT data for admitted students instead of enrolled students since at least 2000. This overstated Emory's test scores.
- May have excluded the scores of the bottom 10 percent of students when reporting SAT/ACT scores, GPAs, and other information. This practice was not followed after 2004.
- Overstated class rankings, although the methodology used to produce that data was not clear.
Two former deans of admission and the leadership of the Office of Institutional Research were aware of the misreporting, the investigation found. They no longer work at Emory.
Emory posted more information at www.emory.edu/datareview.
How much will Emory University be hurt by its revelation of a long history of misrepresenting information. The Atlanta Journal Constitution takes a closer look at the potential impact on Emory's status and reputation.