In the high-pressure road race that is the college admissions process, certain checks and balances are put in place to make sure applicants are telling the truth. But there are few official processes stopping those reporting application data from smudging some facts.
Last month, Tulane University admitted to reporting incorrect Graduate Management Admission Test scores to U.S. News & World Report, becoming the fourth university in 2012 alone to admit to data reporting error. Claremont McKenna College and Emory and George Washington Universities all mis-reported earlier last year.
The school inflated average GMAT scores by 35 points out of a possible 800, and reported receiving an average of 116 applications more than they did, Tulane’s Provost Michael Bernstein said in a statement. The statement also noted that the individual who falsified the data “is no longer at the school.”
At Penn, no single department or administrator is in charge of all the external data reporting within the school once the Office of Admissions compiles data from applicants, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said.
“There are other offices on campus like Institutional Research & Analysis that accesses this data, run their own reports,” Furda said. “At any institution, not just one person pressing a button on any one day is going to be sitting there pushing out the U.S. News & World Report data … especially in a decentralized place. This isn’t some small liberal arts college.”
The Wharton School, for example, has their own statistics reporting procedure. The school has developed internal processes which are informed by the guidelines and recommendations of accrediting bodies and professional organizations such as the Graduate Management Admissions Council and the Association for Institutional Research, said Peter Winicov, senior associate director for Marketing and Communications at Wharton.
“Our data are, and have been, subject to audit on a regular basis by external publications,” he said in an email.
In all of these processes, though, Furda admits that there is some grey area when it comes to what’s being asked of university officials.
“Take test scores: most schools I know of, including Penn, if a student is taking multiple tests many times, you take the highest score,” Furda said. “It puts the institution in the best light, but … you’re also giving the student the best benefit.”
Furda also mentioned that in reporting for a government-sponsored database about colleges, like the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, there’s less room for interpretation.
“If I’m filling something out for the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education on the number of applications we have specifically from African-Americans … very specific question, very specific answer,” Furda said.
In regards to incidents like the one at Tulane, Top Colleges educational consultant and 1989 Penn Graduate School of Education alumnus Steven Goodman believes it shows that “universities are under pressure to provide statistics to boards of directors that are positive.”
“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that there was intent,” he said. “But I can say with 100 percent certainty that all of those statistics put universities in the best possible light,” Goodman said.
According to Goodman, some universities “basically self-report their score,” which saves staff time but also “demonstrates the need for there to be external third-party monitoring.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education Senior Writer Eric Hoover, who covered the Claremont McKenna misreporting scandal last year, observed, “Even on a campus where everyone’s doing their honest best to present accurate numbers, all kinds of things can happen. There’s no sort of central authority that verifies these numbers. I think we’re never going to have that. That’s something the Department of Education could do, but I don’t know if it would have any interest in being a watchdog for admissions numbers that are by their natures slippery.”
Goodman, however, is more optimistic.
“I’m thinking why not have a person who supervises the data, making sure that U.S. News and the government authorities get exactly the same data?” Goodman said. “I think that would solve a lot of the problems.”
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