U.S. News kicks GW out of rankings after data misreporting

Clarification appended

Updated Nov. 14, 2012, 3:45 p.m.

U.S. News & World Report knocked GW out of its top colleges rankings Wednesday – a week after the University disclosed that it has been significantly inflating admissions data.

GW will now be listed as “unranked” in the magazine’s 2013 list, which was released in September. It was originally ranked No. 51 this year. U.S. News’ Director of Data Research Robert Morse had said last week that changes made to GW’s ranking would likely be insignificant, but announced the major blow on his blog Wednesday. The unranked status will last until next fall’s ranking.

Morse referred all questions about the move to his blog post, which laid out that GW was moved off the ranking because the data error would have changed its No. 51 spot. GW had hovered around the U.S. News list’s top 50 for more than a decade.

University President Steven Knapp said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that GW reported its oversight because it is “committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity and accuracy.”

“We did so without regard to any possible action that U.S. News might take as a result,” Knapp said. “We were surprised by the decision of U.S. News to remove George Washington’s numerical ranking rather than to correct it in light of our disclosure.”

When Emory University and Claremont McKenna College admitted to intentionally manipulating students’ test scores earlier this year, U.S. News did not adjust their rankings because the errors were not significant enough to affect their slots.

GW administrators have maintained the University’s misreporting was unintentional.

Associate Vice President and Dean of Admissions Kathryn Napper, who has deferred to GW’s public relations shop since news of the inflated data broke, declined to comment on getting booted off the rankings Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s all being handled upstairs with external relations. Take it up with them,” Napper said.

Administrators announced in an email Thursday that the University has been botching freshman admissions statistics – and for the Class of 2015, that meant inflating the number of freshmen who made it into the top 10 percent of their high school classes by 20 percentage points. The Office of Admissions calculated that 78 percent of students fell into that category, but this summer, the provost’s office discovered that figure was actually 58 percent.

About two-thirds of high schools nationwide don’t rank students. But even if students weren’t ranked, 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.

The firm Baker Tilly audited one year’s worth of admissions data and could not pinpoint which admissions staffer created the formula that led to GW estimating high school students’ class rank. The inflation went back to the 1990s, administrators have said. But Knapp said the University has no plans to audit data from past years.

Professors grappled Wednesday with how to interpret the news that GW had been knocked out of the U.S. News ranking.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s the only decision [U.S. News] could’ve taken. It doesn’t make much sense,” English professor David McAleavey said.

Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science and international affairs, said she was sad to see a setback for the University after she has taught here since 1975.

“Everybody knows that mistakes do happen, that’s why there are erasers on the end of pencils, these things do happen. We will come back,” McClintock said.

The news also made the front page of The Washington Post website, as higher education experts buzzed about the unusual move.

Scott Jaschik, co-founder of the news website Inside Higher Ed, said Wednesday he doesn’t “believe this will be calamity. It’s more of an embarrassment for GW.”

“If a prospective applicant is foused on the ranking, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “I don’t mean to insult your very fine institution but GW wasn’t at the top anyway. People who are rankings obsessed and only want to apply to a top 10 place, weren’t looking at GW.”

In his first interview since GW came clean on the misreported data, Knapp said Tuesday – before U.S. News announced that the University was knocked off the rankings – that he was confident that the decade-long inflation was inadvertent.

He said the fact that more high schools have stopped reporting students’ class ranks – the admissions indicator that GW inflated – led to a wider discrepancy in the data and should clear suspicions of “malice.”

“So is it malicious? I don’t think it is, because I think if people were being malicious they probably would have messed with the other numbers as well and there’s no evidence that there was any other kind of data being fudged,” Knapp said.

Knapp also said then that he only received an oral report from the audit firm about their findings and he did not know whether a full report was available. A Baker Tilly representative deferred questions Wednesday to Lorraine Voles, GW’s vice president for external relations.

When Claremont McKenna admitted to data misreporting earlier this year, it released its externally audited report.

Other universities unranked this year include University of Phoenix Online, Alliant International University and California Institute of Integral Studies.

Raymond Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University, said Monday that this kind of data manipulation is tame compared to how other universities try to game the rankings.

Brown called GW’s error “trivial” compared to southern universities, where he said data manipulation is like the “wild, wild west.”

“I don’t think what GW has done is necessarily wrong. There’s a whole lot of schools that force a rank,” Brown said. “I gotta believe that there are still a whole bunch of folks out there cooking their books.”

He added that TCU began hiring a private firm to audit its admissions data 12 years ago to fight back against the trend he saw of universities inflating data.

– Matt Kwiecinski, Chloe Sorvino, Sarah Ferris and Priya Anand contributed to this report. 

This article was updated Nov. 14, 2012 to reflect the following:

The Hatchet reported that the Class of 2016 data was inflated by 20 percent, from 58 percent to 78 percent. It was inflated by 20 percentage points.

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