U.S. News & World Report knocked GW out of its top colleges rankings Wednesday, six days after the University disclosed that it had been significantly inflating admissions data for more than a decade.
GW lost its No. 51 spot and is now listed as “unranked” in the U.S. News 2013 list – a rare and unexpected move after the magazine said GW would likely drop only a few spots.
University President Steven Knapp said Wednesday that he was surprised that the magazine reversed course, calling it a disproportionate and “odd thing” after GW came clean on the error on its own.
“We were expecting a small change – we were not expecting to be taken off the ranking,” he said. “They’ve given us no information about their motivation in doing this.”
Statistics on how many freshmen fell into the top 10 percent of their high school classes – the data GW miscalculated – count as 6 percent of the ranking methodology. For the Class of 2015, Knapp announced Nov. 8 that the Office of Admissions calculated 78 percent of students ranked in the top 10 percent. That figure was actually 58 percent – 20 percentage points lower.
U.S. News’ Director of Data Research Robert Morse referred all questions to a Wednesday blog post explaining GW’s removal from the rankings. GW had hovered around the U.S. News list’s top 50 colleges for more than a decade, but the data error would have pushed it out of its No.-51 slot. When top schools Emory University and Claremont McKenna College admitted to intentionally manipulating students’ test scores earlier this year, they held their slots because the skewed data didn’t make a dent.
The news came as a public relations blow for a university that’s tried to polish its image this year through a strategic plan and a rebranding campaign, though the unranked status will only last until next fall if GW certifies its data. While U.S. News uses a calculated methodology in the rankings, the list is also a yardstick for prestige.
Within hours of the announcement, that backlash was amplified as students and professors questioned the impact on GW’s reputation. Other unranked universities this year include University of Phoenix Online, Alliant International University and California Institute of Integral Studies.
Associate Vice President and Dean of Admissions Kathryn Napper, who has deferred to GW’s media relations shop since the news broke last week, declined to comment on U.S. News’ decision Wednesday.
“It’s all being handled upstairs with external relations. Take it up with them,” said Napper, who has led the admissions office since 1997.
Administrators explained that the data became increasingly skewed over time as more and more high schools stopped reporting class rank.
About two-thirds of high schools don’t rank students. But the admissions office counted unranked students who earned top standardized test scores and grade point averages in the top 10 percent category anyway.
The University also hired the firm Baker Tilly to audit the most recent year’s worth of admissions data, but will not recheck statistics for past years.
Administrators said the report found no other errors, though the University declined to make a copy of the audit report available, and representatives from Baker Tilly referred all questions back to GW. Claremont McKenna made its audit report public in January.
Knapp said Wednesday that “people are being held accountable.” But he and other administrators have repeatedly declined to release what personnel decisions have been made. They have also maintained that the misreporting was “without malice.”
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 had been planning since the spring to hire an enrollment management chief.
“We’ll just have to weather the short-term fallout, whatever it is,” Knapp said. “You sort of hope you’ll be treated fairly and people will understand the situation and people will realize that this was one very tiny part of the University that made the mistake and won’t judge the whole university based on the mistake made by one part of it.”
Measuring the damage
With GW off this year’s influential list, often used as a college compass for high school students, higher education experts weighed whether the unrank would affect this admissions season and GW’s repute.
Scott Jaschik, co-founder of the news website Inside Higher Ed, said it would turn off a rankings-focused high school student, but added that he doesn’t “believe this will be calamity. It’s more of an embarrassment for GW.”
“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,” he said.
GW tour guides have been told to direct all questions from parents about the data misreporting and rankings to admissions officers, said Jennifer Titche, a junior and student STAR coordinator.
“I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal. We’ll be ranked again next year. I picked GW because I really liked it, and I still do,” Titche said. “It’s not something tour guides have to deal with, because it’s a difficult question to answer.”
But students do sometimes look at rankings over the academic quality of the school, according to research by Wake Forest assistant professor of economics Amanda Griffith.
“It’s a prestige measure. [Students] were more likely to matriculate in the institution if it had a better ranking,” she said last week.
The University has also held an uneven stance on how to value rankings. Some top administrators like Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman have acknowledged their influence for admissions, but maintained that they don’t measure the University’s true quality.
Other administrators like GW School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt have committed to raising their programs’ U.S. News ranking, acknowledging that the lists hold significant sway.
The University often touts top rankings, and has even used them as a pitch to potential alumni donors. Knapp said Wednesday he did not think the unrank would hurt alumni donations.
Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who led GW when the data misreporting began, pointed a sharp finger at U.S. News for the move, and said “it’s an overreaction on their part and shows their unwillingness to recognize their culpability in creating this error.”
Trachtenberg said the magazine should take the blame for forcing universities to report data that few high schools still collect. He added that he didn’t think GW’s next freshman class would take a hit.
“This is not a scandal. That’s what I find off-putting. We don’t have anybody who was cheating,” he said. “No one was sneaking around doing wise guy stuff.”
Raymond Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University, called GW’s data manipulation tame compared to how other universities try to game the rankings.
“I don’t think what GW has done is necessarily wrong. There’s a whole lot of schools that force a rank,” Brown said Monday, before the rankings. “I’ve got to believe that there are still a whole bunch of folks out there cooking their books.”
A campus reacts
Professors and students grappled Wednesday with how to interpret the news.
History and international affairs professor Shawn McHale said he commended Knapp for auditing the data, and predicted that the unranking would harm GW’s reputation only in the short-term.
But, he said, “I think that it’s terrible that someone in that office was either foolish or had no idea about statistics.”
Cynthia McClintock, who has taught at GW since 1975, said she was sad to see a setback for the school, but is confident the school will rebound.
“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.
Some students called for immediate answers. Student Association Executive Vice President Abby Bergren announced that the Senate will hold an emergency meeting Monday to ask administrators what steps they would take to make up for the unrank.
Sen. Hugo Scheckter, U-At-Large, said the University has not been as transparent about the incident as it could be.
“It not only affects us; it affects future alums and future students. We’re trying to open up the canals of communication,” Scheckter said. “We pay a lot of money to come here, and now we’re equally ranked with the University of Phoenix. It’s just not acceptable. It’s embarrassing for everyone who’s here.”
Others shook off the news.
“It sucks, but I’ve been here for four years and know that GW is an esteemed university. So 51st or whatever, it doesn’t matter,” senior Joe Maniscalco said.
The data misreporting error swept across campus over the past week, with deans and administrators holding meetings with faculty to explain the situation, professor of business and international affairs Scheherazade Rehman said.
University officials were conciliatory and mostly up front, with Lerman, GW’s second in command, telling Friday’s Faculty Senate that he would remedy the error.
Jasmine Baker, Catherine Barnao, Sarah Ferris, Matt Kwiecinski, Eric Osman, Priya Anand and Chloe Sorvino contributed to this report.
This article appeared in the November 15, 2012 issue of the Hatchet.