The Wall Street Journal has documented what everyone in higher education knows but few admit publicly: Colleges cook the books when it comes to reporting SAT scores and other data.
The Journal looked at what the colleges tell bond-rating agencies and what they tell popular student guidebooks and magazines such as U.S. News & World Report. Colleges can get in big trouble lying to ratings agencies, but the newspaper found that they exaggerate and sometimes lie when it comes to reporting to the public.
Some colleges exclude low-scoring students from Scholastic Assessment Test compilations. Others report preposterously high graduation rates. Still others apply sleight-of-hand to make them appear more selective in admissions.
And they do it with impunity. Indeed, most guidebooks rely on colleges' self-reporting and have only limited means of fact-checking. (Indeed, some charge the colleges for appearing in their pages.)
The Journal's revelations come as no surprise to people in higher education, many of whom over the past few years have been in unsavory competition for bodies to fill classrooms and keep faculty employed.
"Most people in higher education aren't flat-out dishonest," says James Antonio, dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, "but with all the pressure to quantify quality, all of us have to make ourselves look as good as we can."
Mr. Antonio says some colleges have turned all of their marketing attention to what he calls the "beauty contest" carried out in the guidebooks.
April -- the period when students are deciding which school to attend -- is the cruelest month. Directors and deans of admissions have the cruelest jobs. "Deans of admission are under as much pressure as any [NCAA] Division I basketball or football coach," says Mr. Antonio.
And U.S. News, since it began yearly ranking of the nation's four-year schools eight years ago, has become the cruelest arbiter. Its "America's Best Colleges" issue is the magazine's yearly best seller.
U.S. News prints a million copies of a separate, 228-page college guide that sells for $5.95, and this year the guide is going on CD-ROM.
Mr. Antonio traces the frenzied atmosphere in college admissions to U.S. News' launching of annual ratings in 1987, the year St. Mary's reached No. 1 in the magazine's estimation. So many admitted students actually matriculated that St. Mary's experienced a financial aid crisis and a "rat-in-the-snake" enrollment bulge until they graduated.
No wonder colleges and universities are desperate for an upgrade in the U.S. News rankings. The University of Maryland Baltimore County, for example, has shown the editor of the magazine's college guide (who is married to the chair of political science at Hood College in Frederick) around campus in hopes that he'll look kindly on an upgrade from a third quartile ranking to the second tier.
In recent years, the magazine has gotten much more sophisticated in its judgments, but one critic, writing in the higher education magazine Lingua Franca, notes that four of the 17 factors U.S. News uses to profile a college make up almost 60 percent of a school's total score: reputation, graduation rate and the high school rank and SAT scores of incoming freshmen.
The last three of these are the factors most likely to be fudged by colleges reporting to U.S. News and the other guides.
In Westminster, Martha O'Connell, admissions director at Western Maryland College, is meeting with undecided students and parents as the May 1 deadline for freshman tuition deposits approaches.
"It's so frustrating," she says. "They come in clutching guidebooks or U.S. News. They've done the right thing by coming here to see the school and talk to our people, but they still trust a guidebook over their own gut feelings."
Western Maryland, says Ms. O'Connell, continues to report SAT scores (1,012 for the current freshman class) honestly, but she says, "There's constant pressure to cook the numbers, which we could do easily. When a trustee asks why we don't do it, I say, 'Because it's not honest. It's as simple as that.' "