Justin Peligri: An open letter to U.S. News & World Report

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

Dear U.S. News & World Report,

Magazines typically report the news. But this week, you made some news of your own when you kicked GW off your 2013 national rankings of top colleges for misreporting admissions data. And over the past couple of days, there’s been a fair amount of controversy at GW and in the higher education community about this decision.

But you did the right thing.

While students and administrators here are far from enthusiastic about your recent choice, you sent an important message to leaders in higher education: If you don’t hold yourselves accountable, someone else will – and there will be repercussions.

Some students and administrators at GW argue that your decision was unfair. They grumble that, while GW made national headlines after it was suspended from the list, other schools which committed equally or more inexcusable errors remained on the list, essentially unscathed.

Those schools should have been suspended too.

But if the punishment and lesson-learning has to start with GW, then so be it. Cheating isn’t acceptable – even for administrators making six or seven-figure salaries.

The University miscalculated data. Instead of reporting straight information about the number of students who were ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, employees in the Office of Admissions took it upon themselves to estimate students’ rankings in cases where the schools did not provide that information.

For example, if an applicant had a top grade point average and SAT scores but the school did not rank, the admissions office might have assumed that person was in the top 10 percent of that class.

That’s an egregious error. But there was a catalyst for that error. GW employees breached your rules because they felt they were mandated to report high school rankings, even though an increasing number of high schools no longer rank their students.

Going forward, your magazine should revamp its ratings system to reflect changes in the American education system.

How many other schools rely on guesswork and estimation to conform to U.S. News’ formula? While U.S. News can set a high standard and encourage colleges and universities to follow it, there’s no telling whether or not other schools are doctoring data to meet the requirements of a rankings system that no longer makes sense.

The fact that GW self-reported the error doesn’t excuse that it broke basic rules of data collection. It doesn’t excuse the fact that this situation has enraged some potential alumni donors and worried students’ mothers about their school’s reputation. It doesn’t excuse the fact that 11 days after University President Steven Knapp announced the mistake to the student body, Associate Vice President and Dean of Admissions Kathryn Napper has yet to release a public statement or speak to the press – beyond declines to comment.

And while everyone at GW wishes we could have made headlines last week for something other than this data inflation fiasco, it sends a strong message to our administration that it must hold itself to the same honest standard upon which it expects GW’s tuition-paying students to operate.

Yes, your magazine made an example out of GW. But that doesn’t mean that your methodological problems will go away. Universities will continue to lie and then be disgraced for misreporting data about things like high school ranks. Or U.S. News will continue to render itself irrelevant for remaining married to criteria that no longer accurately measure today’s academic climate.

Which one of these scenarios will come to play out? Well, U.S. News, it’s your choice.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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