Internal university data obtained by The Washington Post show that more than 1,100 applications for the class of 2016 at the private Virginia school — roughly one out of every six — were never completed. The files were missing required elements such as teacher recommendations or test scores, raising questions about how many of them were seriously considered for admission.
If the incomplete applications had been omitted from the official count, university dean of admissions Bill Hartog acknowledged, the admission rate would have been 24 percent, a 5-percentage-point swing in selectivity.
“No matter how you slice it, we’re among the most competitive schools in the country,” Hartog said. He denied that the university had intended to inflate its numbers. “We don’t even think about that stuff.”
What Washington and Lee does in computing its selectivity does not appear to break the rules for reporting data to the federal government or market analysts such as U.S. News & World Report. Some top schools count only completed applications, and others use Washington and Lee’s method.
But interviews with officials at several colleges suggest that the incomplete share of Washington and Lee’s applicant pool last year was unusually large. And the gap between the reported admission rate and what it would have been using a stricter counting method illuminates a growing debate about the reliability of data schools present about themselves.
“This is part of the great mystery of college admissions,” said Andrew P. Kelly, a higher education analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “We don’t have much of an idea of how this works internally.” Kelly said pressure on colleges to stand out in a crowded market inevitably raises questions about self-reported admissions statistics.
“If counting them one way helps you, and counting them in the other way doesn’t,” he said, “there’s often an incentive to count it in the way that helps you.”
Hartog said the university’s counting method is common among its peers and follows federal rules. Washington and Lee makes every effort to get applicants to send in all required materials, he said, but the school sometimes admits students who don’t.
Conor Moran, 19, a student whom Washington and Lee apparently counted as an applicant, said he didn’t consider himself one because he never finished the steps required to apply.
Moran graduated from Chantilly High School in Fairfax County in 2012. The data The Post obtained indicated that he submitted an incomplete application to Washington and Lee, the kind of partial application that the university counted in its official total.
But Moran said he dropped his bid for Washington and Lee, instead pouring his energy into a successful application to George Mason University. He said he chose GMU for its tennis team, its financial aid and its scientific research programs. As Moran recalls, he did not send his teacher recommendations or ACT scores to Washington and Lee because he decided he didn’t want to go to the school in Lexington, Va.