GW under scrutiny for inflated admissions data

by Cory Weinberg

Media Credit: Allison Elfring | Design Editor

Administrators disclosed Thursday that GW botched admissions statistics for nearly a decade – but questions linger about the origin of the flawed data and who was responsible.

The University mistakenly overreported the percentage of freshmen that graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class by up to 20 percent – relying on an estimation system that skewed the data. The oversight prompted GW to strip the Office of Admissions of record-keeping responsibilities.

The admissions office had tabulated 78 percent of the Class of 2015 as top high school students, but this summer, the provost’s office spotted an error that showed the figure was actually 58 percent. That finding could bruise GW’s national ranking in U.S. News & World Report, but likely only by a few slots, if any.

About two-thirds of high schools nationwide don’t rank their students. But the admissions office estimated that admitted students who earned top standardized test scores and grade point averages were in the top 10 percent of their high school class anyway – even if they weren't ranked.

GW hired the audit firm Baker Tilly and came clean after a month-long investigation of last year's enrollment data. Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said the firm found no other accounting errors but declined to provide a copy of the report or a reason as to why it would not be released.

Results of the investigation were presented in a closed-door meeting of the Board of Trustees last month. The firm never discovered who set up the estimation system, Maltzman said, adding that the private audit found it was done “without malice.”

“We’ve taken away from [the admissions office] the responsibility for recording the data,” Maltzman said. “It was a bad system. It’s bad across administrative units to have the same unit responsible for bringing in the class and then telling us about the class. It doesn’t make sense. That’s no longer going to happen.”

Maltzman would not comment on which staff members in the admissions office, if any, would face ramifications for a decade’s worth of false data.

“I can’t discuss any particular personnel issues. That’s sort of a longstanding policy that everyone in the world has,” Malzman said Friday. “What I can tell you is nobody who was responsible for the data is in a role where they are responsible for that data in the future.”

Kathryn Napper, associate vice president and dean of admissions, declined to comment on the data inflation, whether the office had ever reviewed its admissions data before and other questions. Napper has been dean of admissions for 15 years and has overseen a steady ascent in GW’s selectivity and academic standing.

The Office of Academic Planning and Assessment will take over the data reporting and outside firms – like Baker Tilly – will audit admissions data more regularly.

GW has already been planning a search for a new enrollment management chief after the long-serving administrator who oversaw admissions, Robert Chernak, retired in June. His departure moved the admissions office under Provost Steven Lerman's purview, and Maltzman said the provost asked him to evaluate past practices to "really kick the tires" before the new hire.

Representatives from Baker Tilly did not return requests for comment.

The University’s percentage of top high school students had been an outlier among many of the schools it considers its competitors. For example, 62 percent of freshmen at New York University, a higher ranked school, came from the top 10 percent of their high school classes. That statistic was 59 percent at Tulane University and 55 percent at Boston University.

Before the misreported data was uncovered, the percentage of GW freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class had shot up over the last five years since it was 67 percent in 2008.

But despite the gap between GW and its peer schools, Scott Jaschik, co-founder of the news website Inside Higher Ed, explained that the University likely overlooked the data because it fit with administrators' view of students as top-performing.

“Seventy-eight percent says the norm here is to be a top-10 percent student,” he said. “There’s less incentive to double-check something when it makes you look good. That’s just human nature."

In a University-wide email sent by University President Steven Knapp, and in subsequent statements and interviews given by Lerman and Maltzman, officials have tried to take responsibility and calm the aftermath.

“I deeply regret this error and want to assure you that corrective action has been taken and safeguards put into place to prevent such errors from occurring in the future,” Knapp said in a statement.

'Embarrassing,' but probably not a rankings dive

The Department of Education does not collect the misreported data, but the U.S. News ranking, the gold standard in higher education, weighs the statistic as about 6 percent of its total methodology, among factors like student retention and selectivity. GW holds the No. 51 slot on the list, a ranking that has remained mostly stagnant for more than a decade.

Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News said Friday that the organization could revise the rankings this year to bump GW down.

“If it does change GWU’s current 2013 ranking, it would be a slight change, however, we are still trying to carefully make that actual determination. We are not commenting on future rankings,” he said in an email.

But the incident has come under more intense scrutiny from national media, with long write-ups in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post. GW is the third top university to report data misdeeds this year.

Emory University, No. 20 in the U.S. News ranking and one of GW’s competitor schools, admitted in August that it intentionally inflated admitted students’ SAT and ACT scores – leading to the resignation of top admissions officials. The school verified last year’s admissions information in time to hold onto the ranking.

In January, a senior administrator at Claremont McKenna College, a top liberal arts school near Los Angeles, admitted to intentional fabrication of student test scores since 2005, after a law firm investigated the data falsified by a top admissions official.

Morse said those two and GW are the only schools out of 1,400 schools U.S. News ranks that admitted to incorrect submissions, but more are stepping up to report wrongdoing now.

“We think the fact that schools are coming forward and going through the pain of these public disclosures about their data misreporting shows how serious schools are taking the issue of data integrity and how they want to be accurate going forward,” he said.

Over the past decade, fewer high schools have reported students’ class rank, administrators and higher education experts say – a trend that likely only led to a more noticeable data discrepancy in more recent years.

That trend also likely explains the error, said former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who led GW when the misreporting began before stepping down in 2007, ending his 19-year presidency.

Trachtenberg, who has criticized the stranglehold that U.S. News has over universities, called the incident “embarrassing” but said admissions officials were likely only “anxious to please” the magazine and its research director, Morse, by estimating the number of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

“Why didn’t it come to the attention of Bob Morse that he was asking questions that people couldn’t give him answers to? By continuing to ask the questions he was putting [the admissions office] in an impossible situation,” Trachtenberg said.

But the crisis will blow over because of the narrow scope of false data that was reported, he said.

“If you’ve got people cooking the books, they’re not going to cook the books in one area. They’re going to cook the books to make the [University] look gold-plated,” Trachtenberg said. “It was more stupidity than malice. The world will move on. You fix it.”

'Disappointment,’ not outrage

Lerman, GW's second in command, made his first public comments Friday to a meeting of faculty leaders, a day after the news broke.

And he used a word that summed up the mood: “disappointment.”

It was an honest mistake, he said, one that went back to the 1990s and was not “in the spirit in the ethical standards to which we hold ourselves.”

“In no uncertain terms, it’s something we’ll make sure is something will never happen again,” Lerman said.

Economics professor Donald Parsons, usually one of the administration’s sharpest critics on the Faculty Senate, said he appreciated that the administration openly and promptly announced the error.

Physics professor Bill Briscoe, another professor who has stirred debate at the Faculty Senate, said after the meeting that administrators are handling it well.

“We have to take it at face value. It’s been going on for a long time, so it’s not really their fault,” Briscoe said.

Tactically, it made sense for the University to go public with the mistake now, said Amanda Griffith, an assistant economics professor at Wake Forest University, who studies how the rankings affect students’ college decisions.

If the University reported new numbers to U.S. News to correct the error next year, it would have raised suspicions because the percentage of students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class would have fallen dramatically, she said.

“It’s better for them honesty wise to show they had this accounting problem and we’re fixing it,” she said.

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