GW: Admissions data audit not documented

Administrators have for three weeks maintained that the data inflation by the admissions office for the last decade was inadvertent, but say GW does not have documentation of the audit that led to that finding.

University President Steven Knapp said at a student town hall last week that there are no official records from the audit firm Baker Tilly, which verbally briefed administrators and Board of Trustees members last month.

Two other universities released audit data after misreporting data in the last two years, and a college audit expert called GW’s lack of a written report unusual.

When asked by a student at the Nov. 19 meeting if the University would make the audit publicly available, Knapp said, “There is not a formal audit report.”

The board’s Committee on Finance & Audit, chaired by alumnus Nelson Carbonell, charged Baker Tilly to dig into the most recent year of GW’s admissions data and determine the origin of the error this fall. Administrators said the firm could not pinpoint when GW began using a flawed formula that inflated the number of freshmen who fell in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, but said because no other calculations were flawed, they did not believe the error was malicious.

Karen Voracek, a communications official at Baker Tilly, referred all questions back to GW and said the firm could not comment because of client confidentiality.

Carbonell and more than a dozen other board members did not return requests for comment on the audit presentation or why there is no documentation of the firm’s investigation.

Board chairman Russ Ramsey also declined to comment on the board’s decision to go public with the inflation information and if members made any recommendations for the University moving forward.

Phillip Hurd, president of the Association of College and University Auditors, said he has worked on hundreds of audits among higher education institutions and could not think of a time when a university did not require the report in writing. Hurd called Baker Tilly a “very reputable, very solid” firm and said while he didn’t know the parameters of GW’s audit, he could not guess why there would not be written documentation.

“To not have a written [report] on something so important would be questionable,” Hurd said. “If it’s going to be an official response to an issue, it’s always going to be something written… It’s kind of like, if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.”

The University could also need proof of the audit to report to its accreditation agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which this week sent a letter to Knapp “requesting information about the data reporting incidents.”

Richard Pokrass, spokesman for the commission, said it is “highly unlikely” that the University will lose accreditation over the data inflation. Still, he added that “the Commission is obligated to examine the matter” after the media firestorm GW was caught in over the last three weeks.

Pokrass said he could not go into further detail about the letter, but said the University would have until Jan. 4 to respond.

“This usually results in some increased monitoring of the institution by the Commission, but it is nothing that should worry students or employees,” he said in an email.

Senior Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said the University had not yet received the letter, but said GW would answer any of the commission’s questions.

Baker Tilly, which is contracted long-term by GW, also helped the University respond to the community after disclosing the misreported data, checking that administrators’ statements matched the firm’s findings.

Knapp said the firm also recommended that GW take away data-reporting responsibilities from the admissions office. Starting with the next admissions cycle, all data from the office will be verified through an external audit before it is reported to organizations outside the University.

When Claremont McKenna College and Iona College each admitted in the last two years to intentionally misreporting data, those schools released written reports from law firms outlining procedures and verifying the college’s statements. Emory University, which also disclosed that it inflated data, conducted an audit that was not publicly released.

After an investigation of its data and metrics, Iona College took corrective steps like creating an independent Office of Institutional Effectiveness and an Integrity in Reporting Committee.

“We committed to transparency from the outset of the discovery of a problem and shared the findings as a demonstration of that commitment. We believe it was our obligation to set the record straight,” Iona’s Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Brian Nickerson said.

Knapp said earlier this month the University would not look into past years’ data.

The University came clean on the error Nov. 8, announcing that the admissions office had been calculating the percentage of freshmen who landed in the top 10 percent of their high schools based on estimations. GW reported that 78 percent of students came from the top 10 percent of their high school classes, when that figure was actually 58 percent.

U.S. News & World Report booted GW off its 2013 top colleges rankings about a week later, because the correct data would have bumped it down the list and shifted other rankings. The announcement came as a public relations blow to GW, with Knapp arguing that the punishment was too harsh, as some schools that intentionally botched data were kept on the list.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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