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John-Clark Levin and Charles C. Johnson
Lessons from Claremont
What the college’s SAT scandal tells us about oversight and accountability
15 February 2012

Over the last few years, we’ve been pleased to see our alma mater, Claremont McKenna College, shooting upward in the national college rankings. So it was shocking to learn that CMC has been falsifying the SAT scores it reports to college-ranking organizations since 2005. Claremont’s president, Pamela B. Gann, revealed the fraud in an email to the school community last week. The median reading and math SAT scores of the last eight incoming classes had been inflated by 10 to 20 points each. “A senior administrator in the Office of Admission,” she wrote, had “taken full responsibility” and “resigned his position from the College effective immediately.” As it turned out, the senior official was dean of admissions Richard Vos, a 25-year employee of the school.

According to an investigation in the Claremont Port Side, a student magazine, over 75 percent of all SAT scores reported since 2005 had been manipulated. Students promptly took to Facebook with theories about Vos’s motives. The most common was that pressure to improve the school’s ranking blinded his ethical judgment. But the speculation misses a more important question: why did such a systematic fraud go undetected for so long? There are two answers, both of which apply not just to Claremont McKenna, but to colleges across the U.S.: lack of oversight and insufficient accountability.

For too long, university admissions deans have operated as a law unto themselves. Admissions committees meet behind closed doors and make selections based on whatever criteria they deem fit. They need provide no justifications for their rejections, and at top schools, they refuse any correspondence or appeal. For privacy reasons, external auditors cannot review their decisions, while college administrators have no incentive to rock the boat.

As a result, the temptation is overwhelming to skew admissions toward one or another narrowly identified need. The football coach wants a stronger linebacker? Make it happen. A big donor’s son has an IQ below room temperature? Evaluate “the whole student.” Too few admissions from one ethnic group? Lower the requirements and let more in. Too many from another? Reject the surplus. For deans who get away with all of this, fudging a few SAT scores could seem almost trifling.

Deans run little risk of being caught when everyone from U.S. News & World Report to the Department of Education takes colleges at their word. Inflated scores bring rankings prestige, attract better students, and spur donations. When deception brings rewards like that, how likely is it that Claremont McKenna is alone in manipulating its numbers? If you think the rest of America’s college presidents will be eager to audit their own admissions departments in the wake of CMC’s scandal, think again.

This brings us to the second problem: lack of institutional accountability. If a corporation commits a serious fraud, its shareholders can bolt, its creditors might carve up its assets, and the company could dissolve. Its officers may even go to prison. Yet when a college defrauds its students, the students don’t get to plunder the endowment and close their alma mater’s doors—and a good thing, too. The trouble is that college administrations are left without incentive to ensure good oversight.

CMC’s president now realizes that “a sole person had too much authority over reporting” and has announced a new system of internal review. Other institutions, one hopes, will quietly implement their own reforms. But such solutions rest on the assumption that college administrators, as a whole, can be counted on to do the right thing—to put honesty over their schools’ short-term interests. Can they? The past year of university scandals—including the worst in recent memory, the child-molestation scandal at Penn State—suggests otherwise. Lying about statistics has a long, unfortunate history. Harvard, for example, gave U.S. News one range of SAT scores and another, lower range to Moody’s for its freshmen class in 1994. So did Sarah Lawrence. NYU excluded about 100 poor students in the SAT statistics it gave U.S. News, while Marist College excluded international students.

No college in its right mind would accept applicants’ self-reported GPAs and SAT scores. No registrar would have students report the grades their professors gave them. So why do we tolerate a system that allows colleges to do just that kind of thing? Independent oversight is the only way to make the process clean and fair. The federal government, which doles out millions to universities based on self-reported data, must consider reforms that would establish independent verification. College Board, for instance, the association that administers the SAT and sends colleges student scores, is in an excellent position to promote accuracy and transparency. They could easily keep track of which students are admitted with what scores in their annual reports if they required those who take the SAT to tell them where they enrolled—and sent this information to the designated oversight body.

Genuine oversight would promote genuine reform: when admissions deans realize that they can’t admit hopelessly under-qualified legacies, minorities, and athletes without prompting questions, they’ll stop. Transparency promotes propriety. As the Claremont scandal makes plain, it’s time for colleges to be proctored in their reporting—just like the students who take the tests.

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