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What’s At Stake When Colleges Game the Rankings

When I first read this story about data-tampering by Temple University’s Fox School of Business, my reaction was disappointment. That’s settled into a healthy, seething anger. An independent law firm has held former Dean Moshe Porat responsible for falsifying GPAs, percentage of admitted applicants who took the GMAT, student debt figures and more in order to secure a high U.S. News & World Reportranking for years. Purposefully submitting manipulated data to a rankings platform is one of the most offensive ways an institution can deceive prospective students.

Call me naïve, but that initial disappointment stems from my belief that the vast majority of higher education leaders truly work in this field because they believe in the transformational power of education. A few other institutions have come under fire for doing exactly what Porat did, including Iona College and George Washington University. But most administrators want students from all walks of life to have the chance to secure a degree and vastly boost their earning potential and opportunities. I don’t think I could work in this industry if I didn’t genuinely believe that. And that’s why I was upset leaders at Fox felt they needed to play with their numbers to ensure their phenomenal online M.B.A. program was number one for four years.

My naivete doesn’t extend to understanding why they wanted to do this, however. Rankings remain a powerful tool in the college admissions game. For first generation students such as myself, rankings help narrow down the seemingly limitless campuses. Without an informed parent or hands-on guidance counselor, they were an invaluable resource in learning about the “best of the best.” And for peers who had a lot of parental investment in their college application journey, rankings were used as a starting-point tool—and more often than not, a conversation piece. (“Well, we hadn’t considered Amherst, but it was ranked so highly this year we thought we’d add it as a stop on the road trip…”)

And that pesky business side of higher education, the one in which numbers are everything, is a clear motivator for making sure a school promotes itself as much as possible, particularly through free, non-biased means. For a school like Fox, an auxiliary to Temple University, a few years of bad admissions numbers would be enough for the central institution to seriously consider giving a program the axe.

So, we have our whys. None of that, however, makes the actions of college personnel who distort data for rankings, including Porat and the employee responsible for collecting and submitting data to U.S. News—who allegedly misrepresented data under specific direction from Porat—okay. In fact, I think it’s about the lowest one can stoop in misleading prospective students and their families. Sure, there are countless blogs and op-eds by higher education figures who argue that rankings are meaningless and fraught with faulty methodology. New articles are released yearly as therankings drop urging people to ignore the latest crop. But it doesn’t matter. U.S. News wouldn’t continue to publish these rankings if they weren’t highly read and regarded. They continue to be a bright spot for an audience that is distrustful of the media—a third-party, unbiased way to look at colleges and universities. I’m mad on behalf of that audience.

They shouldn’t have to worry that a source they have decided to trust—no matter how “unfair” some colleges may believe the methodology may be—is being manipulated by institutions that actively and knowingly submit lies purely for their own gain. Of course, students applying to colleges need to take responsibility for their own research. But for many, those rankings are one of their credible research outlets. They should be able to trust that a college they are considering applying to and attending has their best interests at heart and therefore is sharing a wholly accurate picture of what they are and what they offer.

As for the burden institutions carry to meet their numbers, oftentimes with yearly shrinking marketing budgets—I do have sympathy. This is undoubtedly a tough time to work in this industry, with pressure coming from many sources, including the public court of opinion. But my sympathy is not granted to individuals who willingly lie to students. Choosing to be ethical shouldn’t have to be a difficult choice. If you’re going to be an admissions officer or dean, you are involving yourself in the lives of students who are paying large sums of money because they believe your institution will help them do what they want in life. Being good stewards of their money and their faith in the institution (and by extension, you) is a requirement.