Chicago. -- The rating of top colleges in newsmagazines such as U.S. News & World Report or Money is a matter of great weight to the colleges involved. Especially for a small school, to receive a high rating boosts applications for that school, not only in sheer numbers but in the quality of the applicants.
But a lower rating, especially after an earlier one was high, leads to complaints from alumni, drops in the application rate, and queries about the job being done by the school's director of admissions.
It may not be surprising then -- though it is dismaying -- that some colleges lie to the magazines when reporting the statistics on which ratings are based -- average SAT scores of the students, acceptance rate (the lower the better, suggesting exclusiveness), and graduation rate (the higher the better, suggesting mutual satisfaction on the part of the school and its students).
The magazines do not check the statistics offered them, perhaps in the naive but reasonable expectation that schools that punish students for cheating would not themselves engage in cheating. But the Wall Street Journal found a clever way to catch the cheats. Schools also report the same kinds of statistics to debt-rating agencies (like Moody's or Standard and Poor's). To cheat on those reports is illegal, a federal offense that can be prosecuted.
Admissions directors claim that the statistics they give to a magazine such as U.S. News are all they have. Those statistics that the Journal turned up show that this is not the case. A neat chart catches the schools red-handed.
The Journal also found another way to check the statistics. The National Collegiate Athletic Association asks for graduation rates from schools, breaking them down into two categories -- the overall rate and that for athletes. The aim is to see whether the schools are taking on athletes in a separate category, from whom they do not expect academic performance culminating in graduation.
Many schools give entirely different graduation rates to the NCAA, to U.S. News and to Moody's. It is to the school's advantage to lower the graduation rate when answering NCAA requests for information -- and to boost them for U.S. News.
The excuses the admission personnel give for these juggled figures resemble those any student cheater would give: Others do it; I'll fail if I don't do it; the system is unfair anyway; grades are not a real test of a person's quality. A man from Rennselaer Polytechnic says that the statistics don't reflect the reality of student life, so he adjusts figures to bring them closer to what he perceives as the reality. Where the statistics might mislead, he says he must "juggle them in such a way so the abuse is minimized."
Schools also invent technical ways to report statistics so that they mislead while being defensible in some sense -- for instance, they get a lower admissions rate by counting several rejections to the same applicants as separate items.
The principal defense of this activity is, however, financial. The school's income depends on high ratings, and the admission director's job depends on the school's income. Not much of a defense.
In Chicago, a high school was just disqualified from a prize it won in a citywide academic contest because the teacher coaching the students stole the exam figures and gave them to his team. So far from teaching people by catching and punishing cheats, he was teaching them precisely how to cheat.
No wonder we have people asking for schools to teach values. It would be far more comforting to hear that they were practicing values, especially at the college level. Institutions founded to promote the search for truth instead promote themselves by the promulgation of falsehood.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.