College rankings reeling from rigging accuasations

Perhaps not 100% reliable

The world of Higher Education has been in a tizzy lately over a couple allegations of ranking rigging. I know what you’re thinking: ‘What? The U.S. News & World Report college ranking system isn’t a pristine, uncorrupted process that results in a completely accurate, objectively true portrait of how colleges and universities stack up? Preposterous!’ But that’s what some are claiming…

A couple of weeks ago at the annual forum of the Association of Institutional Research, Catherine Watt, a former institutional researcher for Clemson University, gave a startlingly frank talk about what Clemson had done to improve its U.S. News & World Report ranking. When James F. Barker took over as President of Clemson in 2001, he publicly vowed to make it a top 20 public research university—and he’s been pretty successful: they’ve sky-rocketed from 38th in 2001 to 22nd in 2008.

But according to Watt, Clemson’s success has been due to some sneaky tactics, including:

  • Increasing the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students by “manipulation around the edges”—cutting a few students from classes with 20-25 kids, but letting the enrollments of slightly larger classes to jump way up (for example, a class meant for 55 students could be bumped up to 70 students).
  • Admitting students with an eye on how they’ll improve the school’s ranking, with the admissions committee reassessing the average SAT score of admitted students after every round to see if they’re on target.
  • Making budgetary decisions by running “multiple definitions to figure out where we can move things around to make them look best.”
  • Ranking all other programs “below average” on the reputational survey form in order to make Clemson look comparatively better.

After the jump, Clemson’s response and a second mini-scandal…

Of course, the Clemson administration played PR defense, calling Watt’s allegations “outrageous,” arguing that changes were made in order to improve academic quality (with a better ranking being merely a happy bi-product), and denying that they’d been dishonest in their evaluations of other schools.

Under pressure from the press, Clemson released its peer evaluation forms. Although some Clemson officials did rank many schools higher than their own, President Barker indeed ranked everyone else lower than Clemson—including schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

As if the Clemson brouhaha weren’t enough, it was recently reported that the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering told the U.S. News ranking crew that 30 of its faculty members were in the prestigious National Academy of Engineering when the real number is actually only 13.

Just a few things to keep in mind next time you see Georgetown next to the number 23…

6 Comments on “College rankings reeling from rigging accuasations

  1. Hrmm. I wonder how many Georgetown classes are capped at 19?

  2. I suppose the registrar would have that information. I have to assume Georgetown isn’t up to rankings mischief, though, since our ranking never changes.

  3. Simply stated, I have lost any respect I might have had for mismanaged Clemson and regard their president as unqualified.
    I trust that no relative of mine would descend to attendance there.

  4. Pingback: Vox Populi » Georgetown rises to #21 in U.S. News rankings

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