The Falsified Data Crisis & the Application Process

Lets face it, the application process is daunting anywhere. As competition to draw in the best students has grown increasingly aggressive, many colleges and universities have turned to less than scrupulous ways to bolster their admissions and to become more attractive to students. A small but growing number have begun twisting or outright lying about data regarding SAT scores, job success after graduation, the selectivity of programs, and even the debt students may graduate from college carrying. It's a disturbing trend, and one that rightly may have prospective college students nervous about the selection process.

The Culprits

While only a handful of colleges in the U.S. have admitted to or have been found to be falsifying data about their schools, that doesn't make the trend any less troubling, especially as many of these schools turn out to be highly regarded, top-tier universities. You may even be surprised by the schools that have fessed up about dishonesty, the majority of which we've listed here.

Bucknell University: One of the most recent cases involving false data is related to Bucknell University. The school admitted in early 2013 than it had inflated average SAT and ACT scores when reporting data to rankings magazines, but, surprisingly, that revelation did not lead to the school losing its number 32 spot on the "Top Liberal Arts Colleges” list.

Claremont McKenna College: Small but prestigious Claremont McKenna admitted to sending false SAT scores to college rankings publications in an attempt to boost its rankings. Even with the correct data figured in, however, the school was able to maintain its ranking among the top liberal arts colleges.

Dickinson State University: An auditor found that enrollment numbers for the fall of 2010 had been inflated by then-president Richard McCallum, counting participants in a not-for-credit symposium as enrolled in the university.

Emory University: In 2012, officials at Emory admitted to sending intentionally misleading data on SAT and ACT scores and admitted students' class rank to rankings magazines for more than a decade.

George Washington University: George Washington University is a prestigious top-tier school, but that didn't stop officials from tampering with data. In 2012, the school announced that it had been misreporting data about freshmen class rank for more than a decade. In response, the school was removed from the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

Iona College: It was revealed in 2011 that Iona College officials had been misrepresenting data from the school for more than a decade. More surprising was that data wasn't just going to rankings magazines but to its accreditor, the U.S. Department of Education, and state agencies. False data inflated the SAT scores and GPAs of admitted students, higher graduation and retention rates, the number of alumni donors, as well as reporting smaller than actual faculty-to-student ratios.

Scripps College: In mid-2012, Scripps College found itself in hot water for providing inaccurate reports about its graduates' average student loan debt. In reality, students from the school were graduating with far higher levels of debt than the school would admit.

While the bulk of data falsification that has been exposed has been at the undergraduate level, graduate and professional programs certainly haven't gone unscathed by the trend. Tulane University's business school was found to be providing false data to boost its rankings among MBA programs, Villanova University's law school was put on probation in 2011 for submitting falsified admissions data on median GPAs and LSAT scores to the American Bar Association, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's law school was censured and fined for intentionally publishing false acceptance rate data for more than six years.

What makes this more troubling, however, is that many education experts believe that the data falsification issue encompasses many more schools than just those which are willing to come forward about their deception. In fact, an Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officers found that 91% believed some institutions besides those that had been identified at the time had reported false scores or other data.

Why Schools Lie

With all of the bad publicity and reputation damage that comes along with submitting false data, it may make students wonder why schools are willing to do it. There are a variety of reasons, though the motivations of each individual school may be quite different.

One of the major reasons schools lie is to get ahead in national rankings and, in turn, become more attractive to students. Rankings have become a huge deal for colleges of all sizes, and many shell out millions in order to raise their scores. This makes the temptation to lie or misrepresent information almost irresistible, especially if schools feel little risk in getting caught.

Some deception may occur as a result of internal pressures, as well. Colleges often set admissions and performance goals for their administrators. If these goals are unrealistic, sometimes officials feel it's easier to lie than to admit that there is little way to meet them.

Beyond this, however, some schools lie simply because they can. Most schools who have falsified data have seen few consequences, with penalties resulting in a small drop in ranking or removal for one year but no real hit. Even as major scandals have emerged, new schools still come out all the time and data falsification remains a major problem. While penalties for these actions could include loss of accreditation and reduced federal funding, no schools have yet to face these consequences, giving most little impetus to stop.

What Falsified Data Means for Students

While knowing how and why schools are willing to report false data is useful, it doesn't help address just what that false data means for students. In most cases, when colleges are falsifying data, they're doing it to manipulate students into choosing their school, whether or not they're really as good as they claim to be. This kind of false advertising can have serious consequences for students, especially when it's related to student debt and the ability of graduates to find jobs.

The potential penalties that falsification of data can carry also pose serious risks for students. When schools are censured, put on probation, or lose sources of funding, students suffer, too. While most schools haven't seen these kinds of consequences, there's no guarantee that accrediting bodies and federal policymakers won't take a harder line in the future, exposing both schools and the students who choose to attend them.

How to Protect Yourself During the Admissions Process

Since you can't put a stop to colleges falsifying data, you'll have to learn how to manage it while seeking out a great college to attend. That's not as hard as you might think. There are a number of ways you can shop around for the best school for you without getting taken in by numbers that aren't quite true representations of what things are really like at a school. Here are some tips that should guide your college search process.

  • Know what to look out for. There have been some common threads in college data falsification that can help you determine which kinds of stats to be to most suspicious about. Take an extra close look at the SAT scores and GPA of accepted students, post-graduation debt, jobs after graduation and overall acceptance rates. These stats can be close to reality even if not quite true, or seriously far off, like that of Tulane, who reported an admissions rate of 53% that in reality was 93%. You may not be able to puzzle out who's telling the truth and who's lying, but you'll at least have a good idea of what kind of data is commonly falsified.
  • Do your own research. It can be smart to do a little poking around when looking at colleges. Get in contact with schools to see who is in charge of compiling and submitting admissions data. If records are collected and sent through multiple departments, it's much harder for schools to lie without getting caught.
  • Compare numbers. By comparing the numbers from similar schools, you can get a better sense if something seems a bit strange. Similar schools should have similar rates of acceptance, SAT scores, and other types of data. If they don't, you might want to look into why that's the case. That doesn't mean that every school should be identical, only that discrepancy can be a sign that some schools might not be being completely honest.
  • Put little weight on rankings. While it might feel good to get accepted and to attend a school that numerous people agree ranks among the best in the nation, rankings are actually a pretty poor tool to use when selecting a school to attend. They won't really tell you whether or not a school is a good fit for you, and, as recent data scandals illuminate, the numbers used to create those rankings are easily subject to manipulation. With rankings being one of the biggest motivators for schools to falsify data, you can avoid some of that by looking at schools, like Reed College, who don't participate in rankings.
  • Watch for red flags. Something seem fishy about the numbers a school is putting out? There are a lot of gray areas in college data —there's not always a standard way to report certain information — and most colleges aren't trying to outright lie. But, there are times when a college's numbers seem too good to be true. For instance, if a college is stating that most students have a certain amount of debt post-graduation and the numbers just don't add up with tuition and room and board figured in, you may have found a serious red flag that should make you much more skeptical about the school's data. That doesn't mean you can't go there, but you need to find out more clearly what you'll be signing up for first.
  • Ask questions. Outright falsifying reports is only one way to manipulate data; other practices can skew things too. Some schools have been caught recruiting students who will not be admitted, counting faculty as teaching resources even when they don't really teach, excluding athletes from scores, and even asking admitted students to retake the SAT for a cash reward. If you want to know how information is collected and analyzed, don't be afraid to ask questions about which students are included for certain stats. You might also want to see if your school of choice audits data through an outside service (Texas Christian University is one example). Few schools employ this practice, but you'll know that the ones who do will have much more trustworthy information.
  • Visit schools and talk to students. Colleges obviously want to make themselves appear as appealing as possible to students, even if that means stretching the truth a bit to get there. One of the easiest ways to see whether a school is really all it claims to be is by meeting with students who already go there and visiting it yourself. It may become immediately clear that class size stats are untrue or that students aren't really incredibly high achievers. On the flip side, you may find that the stats don't matter as much as you thought, with schools offering a comfortable and resource-laden experience that's not quite what you expected based on the data.

With more cases coming out all the time, it's unclear whether or not changes in how data is collected and reported will occur. Colleges are reluctant to cede power over these numbers to outside parties and many haven't expressed great interest in new measurements of achievement that are more difficult to falsify, like the Collegiate Learning Test. Whatever happens over the next decade, students need to be smart about how they use data to make college decisions, as there's not always a surefire way to know which schools can be trusted and which are acting in their own interests.