What if You Threw a Scandal, and No One Cared?


I’m not even going to link to the stories, as they’re so abundant and common: Over the past several years, many colleges have been caught (or sometimes admitted without getting caught) doing things to inflate the profile of the incoming class.  Usually, this is the freshman class and SAT manipulation (Emory, Baylor, Claremont McKenna); sometimes it’s class rank or academic accomplishments of freshmen (George Washington University and Iona); and occasionally, it’s been law schools and their first-year class (Villanova and The University of Illinois.)  These are pretty clearly unethical, and almost always frowned upon, except if you’re  the former president of GWU Stephen Joel Trachtenburg and you don’t understand what all the fuss is about.  Because, apparently, reporting actual historical data is just like forecasting whether it will rain on Alanis Morissette’s wedding day. Neither of which, by the way, is ironic.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account things colleges do to inflate scores that are generally accepted: Superscoring ACT’s in order to create composite scores that don’t exist; requiring all instances of the SAT a student has taken, but reporting only the highest of each subsection; deferring wealthy but weaker students to spring admission, where no one ever looks at the freshman profile, or giving preferences in admission to applicants from schools that don’t rank because, hey, if a student doesn’t even have a rank, how can I report it?  And, does anyone know what an applicant really is these days?  Some places count as an applicant anyone who clicks on a special “Priority” application link in an email; most of those who don’t get admitted (thus lowering the admission rate) are in this group.

Even though we don’t do any of those things, I’m not being judgemental.  I happen to work for a place that takes internal measures of academic quality very seriously, but doesn’t worry too much about inputs.  In other words, I’m very lucky.  But if my president or trustees told me to do those things, and if I wanted to keep paying my mortgage, I’d have to think long and hard.

US News and World Report, the oft-cited villain in the admissions arms race, just took some unprecedented action, removing GWU from its online rankings. But what if, come a year from now, none of this mattered?  What is students and parents still considered GWU and Emory and CMC and all those places for what they are, not for what a magazine says they are?  What if people cared more about what happened in the classroom than what happened in the four years before a student was admitted? What if we went back to 1977 (the year I graduated from high school) to a time when no one really knew or cared about all those numbers? Or, when no one cared about what you wore for your senior portrait, either.

The proverbial Genie is out of the bottle, of course, so none of this will happen.  But would the whole admissions profession be better if it did?  Would students behave differently?  Would parents behave at all?

What do you think?

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