Trying to ensure more accountability in US News & World Report college ranking data

The US News & World Report college rankings are big business but also a big headache in data collection. The company is looking into ways to ensure more trustworthy data:

A new report from The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson explores the increasingly common problem, in which universities submit inflated standardized test scores and class rankings for members of their incoming classes to U.S. News, which doesn’t independently verify the information. Tulane University, Bucknell University, Claremont McKenna College, Emory University, and George Washington University have all been implicated in the past year alone. And those are just the schools that got caught:

A survey of 576 college admissions officers conducted by Gallup last summer for the online news outlet Inside Higher Ed found that 91 percent believe other colleges had falsely reported standardized test scores and other admissions data. A few said their own college had done so.

For such a trusted report, the U.S. News rankings don’t have many safeguards ensuring that their data is accurate. Schools self-report these statistics on the honor system, essentially. U.S. News editor Brian Kelly told Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, “The integrity of data is important to everybody … I find it incredible to contemplate that institutions based on ethical behavior would be doing this.” But plenty of institutions are doing this, as we noted back in November 2012 when GWU was unranked after being caught submitting juiced stats. 

At this point, U.S. News shouldn’t be surprised by acknowledgment like those from Tulane and Bucknell. It turns out that if you let schools misreport the numbers — especially in a field of fierce academic competition and increasingly budgetary hardship — they’ll take you up on the offer. Kelly could’ve learned that by reading U.S. News‘ own blog, Morse Code. Written by data researcher Bob Morse, almost half of the recent posts have been about fraud. To keep schools more honest, the magazine is considering requiring university officials outside of enrollment offices to sign a statement vouching for submitted numbers. But still, no third party accountability would be in place, and many higher ed experts are already saying that the credibility of the U.S. News college rankings is shot.

Three quick thoughts:

1. With the amount of money involved in the entire process, this should not be a surprise. Colleges want to project the best image they can so having a weakly regulated system (and also a suspect methodology and set of factors to start with) can lead to abuses.

2. If the USNWR rankings can’t be trusted, isn’t there someone who could provide a more honest system? This sounds like an opportunity for someone.

3. I wonder if there are parallels to PED use in baseball. To some degree, it doesn’t matter if lots of schools are gaming the system as long as the perception among schools is that everyone else is doing it. With this perception, it is easier to justify one’s own cheating because colleges need to catch up or compete with each other.

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