Americas Best Colleges 2012

I woke up today to find out that my alma mater, Claremont McKenna College, had made national news.  Was it because an alum had won the Nobel Prize?  Unfortunately, the answer was no.  Rather, a college official at Claremont McKenna—most likely the Dean of Admissions at that time—had slightly inflated the critical reading and math SAT scores from 2005 to 2011.

College President Pamela Gann noted that: "For the current sophomore class, the college had reported a combined median SAT score of 1410 when the actual one should have been 1400, as well as a 75th percentile score of 1510 when the actual should have been 1480."

In 2012, among National Liberal Arts Colleges, Claremont McKenna was ranked 9th in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings.

Although this is definitely a terrible thing to witness, I think it is honorable that President Gann came forward as soon as she knew that something was wrong.  This illustrates the pressure that Deans of Admissions likely face in keeping their student body statistics as attractive as possible.

This also raises some key questions about the seriousness that elite colleges and universities (and perhaps all of us) take these rankings. Here are a couple of mine:

How many other schools have bumped up their SAT scores or adjusted something else?

In psychology this is known as the file drawer problemCompetition to get published is so fierce that really only positive findings make it into the journals because they are exciting and new.  This means that there are likely a ton of other studies that simply showed no effect that have been placed in the file drawer-or wastebasket.

It is unlikely that Claremont McKenna is the only elite college or university that is guilty of doing this.  So how many other schools are doing the same?  Will they be willing to come forward with the truth?  And what other things might have been adjusted besides SAT scores?  How deep does the file drawer go?

Why are we so fixated on the U.S. News rankings?

What would compel a Dean of Admissions to inflate the SAT scores of the student body?  Are the rankings really that important?  I don't have the answers to these questions, but what this incident illustrates is that for better or worse, these college rankings mean a great deal to a lot of people.

So, why do you think college rankings do or do not matter?  And what do you think this tells us about our society?  I welcome your thoughts.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Update: An article from the New York Times provides an interesting discussion about how these types of issues are not really new.

About the Author

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

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