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Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 08/23/2012

Does it matter that an elite university lied to college rankers for years?

Since 2000, Emory University submitted false admissions data to college rankers and other organizations that showed higher test scores and class rankings than the Atlanta school’s students actually had. The school just did a public mea culpa and promised never to do it again.

Bad behavior, no question. But if you think that Emory is the only college or university to play around with its reportings to the outfits that rank these schools on one thing or another, you need to reconsider.

It isn’t likely that many other schools so blatantly rig the game to improve their ranking in U.S. News & World Report and other listings by sending outright false information, but who really knows?

Besides, many, many other schools do manipulate the admissions process to try to boost their rankings. Some schools are so obsessed with their spot on the U.S. News rankings that they hire admissions people specifically to find ways for to look better to the magazine.

What kinds of things do schools do?

They spend a lot of money and time to slickly market themselves to every student — whether they are a good fit or not — to get as many applications as possible. That makes the schools look popular and then gives them the added benefit of rejecting more students to increase their admittance rate.

As for the selectivity rate — the number and caliber of students who check yes on their admission invites — well, that’s easy to play with, and some schools have. They increase their catch of top students through the early admission process. Students who apply for early admission at a college are bound to attend that school if accepted. Voila! A better selectivity rate.

Another game is to delay accepting weaker students until the spring term because then those students don’t count in the annual rankings. And let’s not forget how some schools try to attract those with top SAT and ACT scores with merit scholarships and discounts on tuition. Test scores are a big category for college rankings.

So are teacher-student ratios, which can be and are manipulated. For example, schools can create some classes that attract few students, which brings down the average class ratio.

And then there is the game of trying to boost a school’s reputation — because reputation, as determined by the leaders of colleges and universities, is the largest component of the U.S. News college listings. How? School leaders actually send out letters to their peers elsewhere telling them about their programs in the hope that they will give them a great reputation write-up on the U.S. News form.

I could on and on with the games, but you get the idea.

So where does Emory fit into all of this? The university just released the findings of a three-month investigation (see full text below) into the false data scandal, and the school is obviously mortified. Its ranking is sure to be affected.

What does it matter?

If you actually think the rankings help determine the worth of these schools, then this should matter a great deal.

You should stop deluding yourself.

If you already take college rankings with a grain of salt, then you can carry on and wait for the next rankings scandal to reaffirm your opinion.

Here’s Emory University’s announcement of its findings, released Aug. 17:

Emory Announces Findings in Data Review
Emory University today released the results of a three-month investigation into how admissions-related data were misreported to various external audiences, including standard reference sources and third parties who rank colleges and universities. 
In May, 2012, Emory’s new assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admissions, John Latting, discovered discrepancies in some data that had been previously submitted to these organizations, and brought them to the attention of Provost Earl Lewis. Emory conducted an internal investigation of the discrepancies, engaging the Jones Day law firm to ensure objectivity and independence.
Upon learning of the results of the investigation, Emory President James Wagner stated, “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. I am deeply disappointed.”
The investigation focused on three key areas: whether incorrect data were submitted; if incorrect data were submitted, who was responsible; and if incorrect data were submitted, how and why did that practice begin.  The central findings of the investigation were that there had been intentional misreporting over more than a decade, and that leadership in the Office of Admission and Institutional Research was aware of and participated in the misreporting.
  The investigation was not able to determine how the practice began. The investigation revealed that both the University’s Office of Admission serving Emory College, and the University’s Office of Institutional Research, annually reported admitted students’ SAT/ACT scores to external surveys as enrolled student scores, since at least the year 2000. This had the effect of overstating Emory’s reported test scores. The report found that class rankings were also overstated, although the methodology used to produce the data was not clear.
The investigation also found that two former deans of admission and the leadership of the Office of Institutional Research were aware of the misreporting. The employees responsible for this conduct are no longer employed at Emory.  Further, a corrective action plan is being implemented to ensure the future integrity of Emory’s data reporting. Additional information regarding the data review can be found at www.emory.edu/datareview.
In addition to correcting data for the most recent academic year, the Office of the Provost announced several changes to the way in which Emory will manage future data collection and reporting activities.  Based on the findings of the investigation, Provost Lewis outlined the following corrective actions:
*Emory will implement new internal controls, ensuring there is a system of checks and balances regarding data and the manner of interpreting and reporting it.
*Emory will dedicate staff to manage the system of checks and balances for future reporting, including a data analyst in the Office of Admission to ensure technical accuracy in the analysis of large data sets. Within the Office of the Provost, an assistant vice provost for academic planning was appointed in June. This position is providing oversight and review of all procedures and policies associated with collection and reporting of institutional data.
*Finally, Emory staff in admissions and enrollment management are being strongly reminded and encouraged to bring issues of concern to the attention of their respective managers, the provost, or the Emory Trust Line (1-888-550-8850). Additional meetings will be held with staff members who were involved in data collection in the past to ensure they understand Emory’s approved processes going forward. In addition, the entire University community will be encouraged anew to bring issues of concern to their supervisors or to the Trust Line if they do not get satisfactory resolution.
“I am grateful to Dean Latting for calling this matter to our attention,” said President Wagner. “Emory is a great institution, with great faculty, staff, and students, and a strong alumni network. None of that changes with this news. I assure you that I and my colleagues on the cabinet are doing all that we can to see that nothing like this happens again, and that Emory lives up to its standards of excellence and integrity.”

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