One of my favorite catch phrases comes from a nearly-forgotten TV Western from the 1960s. The Guns of Will Sonnett starred the legendary character actor Walter Brennan, and in every episode he would make some outlandish claim, followed by the catch phrase—“No brag, just fact.”
Last spring I met with an admissions friend at an elite national university located in the South. We were talking about how the year had gone and he mentioned that the university had passed the 30,000 mark in applications for the first time. No brag, just fact. I asked if there was a point where receiving more applications was no longer beneficial. “We’re already at that point,” he responded, “but we’re under pressure from the board and administration to increase numbers and quality every year.”
I thought back to that conversation numerous times throughout 2012, whenever there were news reports about colleges misreporting admissions information. I thought about it in August when an internal investigation revealed that Emory University intentionally misreported admissions data for more than a decade, substituting SAT and ACT scores for admitted rather than enrolled students as well as inflating the percentage of entering freshmen coming from the top 10% of their high school class.
Emory was not the first time in 2012 that a prominent institution admitted to lying about admissions statistics. In February (before the conversation mentioned above) the Dean of Admissions at ClaremontMcKenna resigned after admitting that he falsely reported the College’s SAT stats dating back to 2005. It was also not the last time. In November George Washington University admitted extrapolating and exaggerating class rank for incoming students, and in December the American Association of Law Schools placed Villanova on probation for two years after 2011 revelations that it had falsified admissions data.
The Emory revelations bothered me most of all, bringing forth a flood of conflicting emotions. These scandals damage all of us in the college admissions/counseling profession, calling into question our truthfulness and trustworthiness. It reinforces the belief that college admission is a business ruled by self-interest rather than a profession serving the public interest. At the same time I know and respect both of the Admissions Deans in charge at Emory during the time when the misrepresentation occurred, and neither fits the narrative of the rogue admissions officer perpetrating fraud. Both had moved to the secondary side, and both have left their jobs. In no way can I condone their actions, and yet I hurt for both of them.
What would lead experienced admissions officers at two excellent institutions like Emory and Claremont McKenna to misrepresent data? It is easy to blame the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, poster child for the myths that selectivity=prestige and that the name on the diploma is more important than the quality of the college experience itself. I have criticized U.S. News in a previous post (in a loving, helpful way), but in neither case would the changed statistics have led to a significant change in ranking.
The pressures are more subtle and substantial, coming from Boards, Provosts, Presidents, and even bond-rating agencies. At one selective medium-sized university I am aware of, a new provost opened his first meeting with the admissions staff by announcing that the only agenda item was how to increase the mean SAT score of the entering class. I have also heard about an Ivy League institution worried that its bond rating might be lowered after receiving 150 fewer applications just one year after a record admissions year.
An internal report at Claremont McKenna places the blame squarely in the hands of a single individual, the long-time Vice President of Admission and Financial Aid (at Emory, the Office of Institutional Research was also implicated). It concludes that he, “acting alone, compiled and reported inaccurate SAT, ACT, class rank and application statistics, starting as early as 2004.” The report further states that “the College’s leadership did not direct, encourage or know about the VP’s misconduct.”
The report’s conclusions put Claremont McKenna in a long tradition of internal investigations of other corporate and governmental scandals. Typically the investigations conclude that the culprit is a rogue individual who acts alone, with higher ups having no knowledge and bearing no responsibility. Maybe that’s the case both at Claremont McKenna and at Emory. Occam’s Razor is a philosophical principle that the simplest explanation is usually right, and that would be the simplest explanation.
I can’t help believing that broader institutional issues contribute to these scandals. That’s why I go back to the conversation I had back in the spring. Claremont McKenna and Emory are outstanding institutions that attract the kind of students that most institutions crave, but it’s not enough. Admissions success becomes a burden. If our SAT mean is 1380, we must get to 1400. If we admitted 30% last year, we’ve failed if it’s not 25% next year. No brag, just fact. Call it Ivy Envy, call it the most insidious of the business practices taking over higher education, call it crazy.
The start of a new year is an opportunity for reflection and for resolutions. The admissions statistics scandals were the ethical issue of 2012 for college admissions. That can’t be the case in 2013. We may understand and empathize with the pressures our colleagues feel, but college admissions can’t afford another scandal of this type. It is time to get our house in order. No brag, just fact.