Washington and Lee president asks for review of reporting procedures for admissions data

September 23, 2013

Washington and Lee University’s president has asked for a review of the school’s procedures for reporting admissions data in response to a report about how the prestigious liberal arts school and others count incomplete student applications in calculations that determine a school’s selectivity.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Washington and Lee had included more than 1,100 incomplete applications in its official count of 5,972 applicants for the class that entered in 2012.

The official admissions rate for the private university in Lexington, Va., was 19 percent. But the longtime dean of admissions, Bill Hartog, acknowledged that if incomplete applications had been excluded, the rate would have been 24 percent.

The 5 percentage-point difference illustrated the extent to which admissions rates depend on counting methods that vary from one university to another. Some top schools include partial applications in totals reported to the federal government and market analysts such as U.S. News & World Report. Others say they don’t.

Washington and Lee officials said they did not intend to inflate the university’s numbers and that their school broke no rules.

“I believe that we are acting in accordance with the applicable guidelines and in a manner consistent with how other colleges and universities approach this process,” university President Kenneth P. Ruscio said in a statement Monday. “Nevertheless, if there are questions about our policy, we will address them forthrightly and transparently. Our credibility is fundamental to everything that we do.”

Ruscio said he has asked three people from the university community “to examine the various issues outlined in the article” and present a report to him by Oct. 15.

“It is important to assure the community that we have examined our procedures carefully and, if appropriate, made adjustments,” Ruscio said.

The three who will advise Ruscio are Sidney Evans, vice president for student affairs, who will chair the group; Beau Dudley, executive director of alumni affairs; and Marc Conner, associate provost and English professor.

Admissions data have come under increasing scrutiny in higher education during the past two years. The U.S. Naval Academy revised its applicant counting procedure after an internal critic raised questions in late 2011 about the number of incomplete applications in its totals.

An investigation for the Claremont McKenna College board of trustees found in 2012 that the California college’s applicant totals were inaccurate, leading to changes in how the school reports its data. A spokeswoman for Claremont McKenna said the college now excludes incomplete applications from its official totals. Dominican University of California told U.S. News that it had overstated application totals, which led to a correction in its 2011 admissions rate — to 71 percent, instead of 54 percent.

Such disclosures have led to much soul-searching among college officials.

On Monday, the news Web site Inside Higher Ed reported that the National Association for College Admission Counseling is calling on colleges to strengthen safeguards to ensure the reliability of key figures they report to the public. According to the news outlet, the association’s ethics committee has determined that colleges must have “an official policy regarding the collection, calculation and reporting of institutional statistics. This must include a process for validating all institutional data.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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