When College Rankings Become a Game, Cheating is Inevitable

As a result of the Jan. 30 announcement, education experts have been weighing in on the internal pressure admissions officers face, but the greater focus should be on the role of the rankings themselves, the indicators used and the problem with  a system that can, and is, easily manipulated. 

Amid the discussion, “pressure” is not a satisfying justification for falsifying information, as doing so creates both a slippery slope and a double standard. Professors rarely give free passes to students who plagiarize or cheat on exams due to academic pressure, and senior officials should be held to at least this standard. 

That said, it’s easy to see where the temptation lies. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, almost two-thirds of students cite “academic reputation” as the most important factor when selecting a school; in other words, they rely heavily on rankings, and especially the most hallowed ranking of them all: U.S. News & World Report. While there are those rare high school seniors who will conduct an in-depth study of various university options, most will glance at the ratings and, based on these, apply to some target, safety and reach schools, then call it a day. Yet according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a 2010 rankings survey revealed that more than 80 percent of college admissions officers felt that U.S. News offered misleading conclusions, even as 70 percent came from schools that happily splashed their ranking across promotional materials. 

The conclusions are worse after looking at the methodology of the U.S. News rankings. By far the most important factor, accounting for 22.5 percent of final rankings, is “reputation” as determined by the opinions of those at similar schools. And “selectivity” — aka SAT scores and acceptance rate, which are gathered via the honor system — accounts for 15 percent of the ranking, nearly twice that of “graduation rate.” When the system that influences the decision of thousands nationwide is based on things as intangible as “opinion,” or self-reported factors like SAT scores, it’s no surprise that everyone starts fudging the facts. 

Although CMC is the most recent and most “prestigious” school to have been caught with these shenanigans, other universities are simply more blatant with their attempts to game the system. 

For example, Baylor University in Texas pays accepted students to retake the SAT so it can report higher scores. More commonly, schools often target outreach to students who have no chance of being accepted, simply so the acceptance rate goes down and the prestige goes up. 

Even we’ve been trying to rebrand for a while, whether it’s been morphing the name of the school from UCSD to UC San Diego, designing new flyers with pictures of happy students with surfboards or the move to Division I sports that’s currently the talk of the town. 

Rankings are here to stay; they do have value and are simply too convenient in terms of reducing information cost to be tossed aside completely. But Claremont McKenna, Baylor and other universities that see them as a easily manipulated system show that their methodology should be reevaluated — and maybe these schools’ values too.