These and similar revelations in the past year have come from Claremont McKenna College in California, Emory University in Atlanta and George Washington University in the District. In each case, the highly regarded schools acknowledged that they had submitted incorrect test scores or overstated the high school rankings of their incoming freshmen.
At a time of intense competition for high-achieving students, the episodes have renewed debate about the validity of the U.S. News rankings, which for three decades have served as a kind of bible for parents and students shopping for colleges.
Much of the information colleges present about themselves to U.S. News, other analysts and the federal government is not independently verified. That makes it impossible to know how many might have misreported data over the years as they angle for prestige to stand out in a crowded market.
“Rankings have become omnipresent in higher education, and they have enhanced the competition among institutions,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents. “And in any highly competitive environment, there is always a temptation to cut corners.”
In some of the recent cases, college officials said an employee intentionally submitted inaccurate data. In others, it was unclear whether the mistake was intentional. GWU attributed its errors to a flaw in data-reporting systems that dated back a decade.
A survey of 576 college admissions officers conducted by Gallup in the summer for the online news outlet Inside Higher Ed found that 91 percent think other colleges had falsely reported standardized test scores and other admissions data. A few said their own college had done so.
“There’s definitely a widespread feeling that this goes well beyond those that have been caught or come forward,” said Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed’s editor.
U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly said the number of schools that have corrected their record is “a pretty small universe,” which he considers a sign that reporting problems are not pervasive. He said he would not be surprised if a few more cases emerged.
“If it was a stampede, I would be surprised,” Kelly said, “and that might cause us to rethink some things.”
Kelly acknowledged that a string of revelations from five prominent colleges is unusual. But he said the disclosures should strengthen consumer confidence in U.S. News rankings because they show that schools take the data seriously.