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Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions

eye on the news

Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions

The media should stop ranking schools. October 29, 2014

College-application season is shifting into high gear, and with it comes anxiety and abuses—on both sides of the admissions desk. Some wealthy parents will pay private counselors more than $40,000 for “tweaking” their kids’ essays, on the implicit promise that these consultants have connections inside admissions offices, where many once worked. For their part, admissions directors want more applications so that they can reject a higher percentage of qualified kids. By boosting their rejection rates, they improve their school’s position in most rankings. While the current admissions system works well for a small number of colleges and over-achieving kids, for everyone else, the process is broken. Colleges, government, and the media all share in the blame.

Recently, Inside Higher Education, with Gallup’s help, published its annual survey of college- admissions officers. The report was sobering: 93 percent of the college-admissions officers surveyed said they believed colleges lie about key data they report, such as average SAT scores of admitted students. Why? It makes their schools appear more selective, which attracts more applicants. Sixty-five percent of admissions officers said that their institution did not meet its enrollment goals last year.

Over the last few years, some highly respected, competitive colleges have been caught fudging their admissions data in an effort to enhance perceived selectivity and improve their rankings. The consequences of this misbehavior were minimal: a mid-level administrator might lose his job, and the institution might receive a “not ranked” designation in the next U.S. News & World Report listing. But applications remained steady and, when the schools reappeared on the U.S. News list, they usually approximated their prior position.

College rankings are a proxy for a school’s brand value, which may be important to a family considering where to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars for a child’s education. But college rankings also contribute to the stress and confusion that characterize the school-selection process. Every ranking scheme reflects the bias of the editor who creates it. What’s important to that editor is different from what is important to me or to my child.

Change the inputs or weightings even slightly, and you will probably get a different list of colleges. Some students would prefer a rating system that measures a college’s success at getting graduates admitted to law or medical school. Others would like to know if it’s possible to graduate without debt. Some would be content to know that a school boasts a happy campus, where a young person can mature, gain confidence, or find their passion. Some are looking for a school that provides an entrée into a particular field. Few colleges—or publications that rank colleges—provide any of these metrics. There has to be a better way.

Last year, the Obama administration announced that it would publish its own indicators and ratings—a small step away from the ranking system. Among the factors the administration thought important to include was what percentage of the student body received Pell grants (a proxy for students from poor families). But 86 percent of admissions officers said that the administration’s measures would do nothing to help applicants better understand their school. What should be done to help improve the confusing and costly college-search process?

First, colleges need to be honest and transparent about outcomes. Second, the media must stop making things worse. They should refrain from publishing their own rankings—ratings are fine—and stop reporting on others’ ranking lists. Recently, I got an e-mail from the New York Times and Zinch (a college “matching” company), with both of whom I have worked. The e-mail was pushing a discounted online subscription to the newspaper as a way to “Help Your Child Get Into the Best College.” A Times subscription, the email said, could “help your child get better grades, build vocabulary for the SATs, [and] write persuasive essays so important for college applications.” Perhaps it could; but then the message went on to promise the ability to “make a strong impression in college interviews.” Both The Times and Zinch know better: virtually no college offers or uses interviews as part of the admissions decision anymore.

Enabling families to figure out which school might be the right fit for their child is far more important than college rankings. The media should focus their considerable talents providing real insights, not contributing to the hype.

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