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August 19, 2007

When colleges game the system

A high-school senior we know was wait-listed at his top choice for college. He called them up, told them he was very interested in them, and asked if they'd interview him. They agreed, and after the interview, he received a letter from the school that said, roughly, "If we were to make you an offer, would you accept it?" He said, Sure. They did, and he did.

Happy ending, right?

Now, you probably asked yourself, "Why didn't the college just make the kid a real offer instead of using the subjunctive and playing with his mind?" But that's because you're a normal human being, who's sadly unaware of the shenanigans colleges engage in to boost their rankings in the annual U.S. News and World Report survey. Colleges want to have low acceptance rates for applicants, but high acceptance rates from accepted students. If the school had made this student an offer, he might have turned it down. By making it hypothetical and getting him to agree to accept before the offer was actually made, the college made sure it wasn't risking a hit to its acceptance rate for offers made.

You follow that, right?

On Friday, the New York Times had an interesting article explaining these and other tricks colleges play to boost their rankings. Let's start with acceptance rates of students:

A college’s acceptance rate, or the proportion of applicants it admits, counts towards its rank, and the more selective the college is, the better.

So some colleges try to increase the number of applicants they receive — and turn down — by waiving fees and dropping requirements. Some send out applications by e-mail, with most of the student’s personal information already filled in. Others send out persistent e-mail appeals to high school sophomores, with breathless subject lines like “Time is running out.”

“It’s pumping up the numbers, it’s making colleges look more selective, and it’s contributing to the frenzy,” said Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College. “What if we become ridiculous and just go out to a shopping mall and hand out applications?”
Or try average SAT scores:
Some colleges used to drop athletes’ SAT scores from their computation of incoming students’ scores in order to increase their averages and make their institutions look more selective, Mr. Kelly said.

In response, U.S. News helped to create common definitions with organizations like the College Board so that data reporting would be standardized and harder to fudge.

Still, critics say that the magazine, which does not verify information submitted by the colleges, bears some responsibility for the litany of tactics that colleges employ.

James M. Sumner, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, said a counterpart from a well-regarded institution told him that when computing average SAT scores he excluded the SAT’s of students accepted as “development cases,” whose grades and test scores are often below average but whose families are likely to make major donations. Mr. Sumner declined to identify the university.
Or alumni donations:
U.S. News reports the proportion of a university’s alumni who contribute money each year, as a way of measuring consumer satisfaction. Michael Beseda, vice president for enrollment at St. Mary’s College of California, said he knew someone whose college sent him a $5 bill, asking him simply to send it back so it would count as a donation. Several colleges have admitted taking a single donation and spreading it over two, three or five years, to raise their annual numbers.
The article notes that many of the tricks involve admissions, because that's the easiest for colleges to control.

To their credit, about 60 colleges have signed a letter agreeing not to participate in one aspect of the survey that asks colleges to rate other schools. (What could possibly go wrong there?) But, according to the Times, "virtually none of the most select and highly ranked colleges signed on."

The only redeeming thing about this funny business is that college is way less important than most people think. If it were more important, we'd have a real problem.

The way I think of it, if colleges were corporations that issued stock, the vast majority of them would be up on charges of securities fraud.