Back in February I wrote a post after Flagler College in Florida became the most recent college admitting that admissions statistics have been misreported. Several weeks ago Flagler released an outside investigative report commissioned by its Board of Trustees that answers in ugly detail the question raised every time there is a new report of a college misreporting admissions data. “How could this happen?”
The answer at Flagler is “intentional data fraud and misreporting” at the hands of a single individual, former Vice President for Enrollment Management Marc Williar. Williar, an admissions staff member for 25 years and the VP since 2009, resigned back in February, taking full responsibility for the data fraud. According to the report, forensic accounting analysis indicates that the fraud goes back at least to 2005, much earlier than acknowledged by Williar.
What is different about the Flagler case is that the data fraud involves manipulation of individual student records, not just the freshman class profile. The report accuses Williar of accessing the electronic database maintained by Flagler for student records to inflate and even fabricate test scores for individual students. How widespread was the fraud? Williar is accused of inflating test scores for 2542 students in 2012 and 2013 alone and fabricating 195 others. The reports states that 99% of the scores entered into the database by Williar over that two-year period were inaccurate. Apparently no one else on the Flagler campus was involved or even aware of the data manipulation.
The forensic accounting analysis during the investigation didn’t find any “formula” by which scores were manipulated, but it appears that Williar started by determining the class mean he wanted to achieve, then added 50 or 100 points to SAT subscores for individual students. He inflated class rank statistics by omitting low class ranks. The inflation in the SAT profile on the 1600 scale for entering Flagler classes was approximately 25 points from 2004-2007, 50 points from 2008-2010, and 85 points over the past three years.
Some takeaways, both questions and conclusions:
1) I applaud Flagler for publicly releasing the report. The transparency serves Flagler, the admissions profession, and the public.
2) It is tempting to think of admissions data manipulation as a victimless crime, hurting only the credibility of U.S. News’s college rankings, but at Flagler the data fraud hurt individual students. At least several hundred students were misplaced in courses because of the changed individual SAT scores, and in fact that was what led to discovery of the fraud, as a faculty member found discrepancies between student performance in freshman English composition classes and the SAT scores that led to their placement in those courses.
not uncommon, and during my freshman year in college I was placed in an honors
freshman English section made up of the students with the highest SAT verbal scores,
but is the SAT designed to be used to place students in college courses? I defer to those
with more expertise in psychometrics than I have, but I wonder if that is a misuse of the
4) We know from the report how the data fraud occurred, but less about why. Williar told the investigators that he was trying to “help” the college, but the report concludes that he committed the fraud out of self-interest, as a way to increase both his compensation and his status at the college. As in previous cases of data misrepresentation, once you start inflating data, additional misrepresentation is required to sustain the deception.
The report found no evidence that Williar’s actions were influenced by pressure or expectations from the Flagler administration or Board. I don’t know Marc Williar, and his actions are indefensible, but the narrative of the rogue admissions officer doesn’t ring true. I absolutely believe that no one in a position of authority told him to change student records or manipulate profile data, but I also suspect that his ethical lapses were encouraged by the pressures, subtle or explicit, placed on admissions offices to achieve multiple and challenging metric benchmarks. It is no longer a successful year to bring in a full freshman class. You must also be more selective, raise SAT scores, increase diversity, and lower the discount rate. Those are all worthwhile goals, but an institutional climate that focuses first and foremost on those metrics is unhealthy and partly to blame when data fraud occurs.
5) As I reported back in February, there have long been signs that Flagler was engaged in creative accounting, not with regard to test scores, but with regard to admit rate. Back in the early 1990s Flagler was reporting to U.S. News an acceptance rate lower than that for MIT, Duke, and Penn. I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might have actually been more selective than those places, but the cynic in me says that it was playing games in how it counted applications. If that’s the case, the conditions that led to the manipulation of data have been present for a long time.
6) There is one other ethical issue mentioned in the investigative report that doesn’t seem related to the data fraud, and I will discuss it in my next post.
How many isolated cases constitute evidence of an epidemic, and how do we determine whether a disease is contagious? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have had to deal with those questions this year with regard to Ebola. It may be time for the college admissions profession to address those questions with regard to data fraud and misrepresentation. Hopefully the Flagler investigation will help prevent the next outbreak.