I hate cheating. I’m sure you do too.
At Penn, we learn from the Code of Student Conduct and countless course syllabi that any student who reports misleading or falsified data for any assignment is strictly prohibited and will be severely disciplined. Cheating undermines the whole purpose of assessments: to find a standardized and effective way to measure a person’s knowledge in a certain subject.
Similarly, college rankings rely on all institutions to report accurate data, so parents, students, and employers can find a standardized and effective way to measure an institution’s quality.
However flawed college rankings are, they remain influential. Research from the American Educational Research Association shows that being on the U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 list could lead to an increase in the school’s applications by 6 to 10 percent.
Institutions have a responsibility to report accurate data so that families who reference these rankings are not misled. But the tremendous incentive of a bump in rankings encourages the institutions that self-report data to cheat.
Michael Thaddeus, a professor at Columbia University specializing in algebraic geometry, wrote a 21-page report that investigates and challenges Columbia’s “dizzying ascent” from 18th place in 1988 to second place in the U.S. News college rankings today.
Professor Thaddeus’ report details Columbia’s “inaccurate, dubious, or highly misleading” data on average class sizes, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, student-faculty ratios, and so on — all of which are important indices the U.S. News collects to calculate its annual college rankings. Columbia is also the only Ivy League institution that does not publish its Common Data Set — a standardized survey that collects and publishes data from universities.
Soon after the report made headlines in the higher education community, Columbia made an official statement to withdraw from next year’s 2023 U.S. News rankings on June 30, one day before the deadline to submit official data to U.S. News.
One week after Columbia’s withdrawal, U.S. News announced that Columbia was also “unranked” in the 2022 Best Colleges Rankings, losing the coveted second place in this year’s ranking.
Unranking Columbia, one of the most elite institutions, suggests that cheating and dishonesty in college admissions fester throughout the system.
Penn is no exception. For example, the U.S. News stipulates that the student-faculty ratio measures “the ratio of full-time-equivalent students to full-time-equivalent faculty members.” It goes on to explain that the ratio only excludes “faculty and students of law, medical, business and other stand-alone graduate or professional programs in which faculty members teach virtually only graduate-level students.”
However, Penn bent the rules by reporting a different ratio on government reports and included an appended remark, stating that “This is the ratio of undergraduate students to faculty.” What does this reveal about how Penn calculates this ratio? Does Penn include non-standalone graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences or the School of Engineering and Applied Science except for “students of law, medical, business and other stand-alone graduate ... programs,” or is Penn bending the rules by excluding graduate students and only counting undergraduate students in its ratio to decrease its student-to-faculty ratio?
Today, Penn still uses the same ratio across the Common Data Set and government worksheets, but it now ceases to acknowledge the different ways of calculation in its new reports.
The student-faculty ratio is a murky concept for enormous institutions such as Penn that offer various degrees and certificates at various levels of studies. It becomes all the more easier for institutions to bend the rules when no one closely examines the calculations. Class size and the student-faculty ratio combined accounts for 9% in the U.S. News ranking calculation.
Not only does this instance speak to the innate challenges of an overly generalized ranking system, but it also demonstrates how institutions collectively bend the rules to benefit themselves. Whereas higher educational institutions normally hold students to the highest conduct, they have failed to hold themselves to the lowest standards of conduct, let alone the highest.
As students, we sometimes also face the allure and possible rewards for bending the rules. But thanks to years of learning the values of integrity, fairness, and equity, many of us will hold ourselves accountable. We also have to abide by the playbook set forth by universities widely known as the student code of conduct.
But there is no playbook for a trillion-dollar industry that seeks profits from information-scarce families who look up to the rankings published by websites such as U.S. News to decide on their educational future.
When institutions lie, they cover it up. And when it has become too late for a plain old cover-up, they lay down for a while, wishing for the scandal to go away as time passes.
In 2019, UC Berkeley notified U.S. News that they “misreported” data used to calculate college rankings since 2014, resulting in the school’s removal from the 2019 national rankings. However, there were no further investigations nor punishment for schools like Berkeley that cheated the system for years. In 2020, UC Berkeley promptly returned for the 2020 U.S. News Best National Universities Rankings.
How can we ensure that these institutions are reporting the correct data if no one can detect violations unless they self-report such actions? Why do university admission offices get less scrutiny than the conduct of college students?
It’s time to hold liars legally accountable for their actions.
Last year, the former dean of Temple University’s Fox School of Business, Moshe Porat, was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 14 months in prison on charges that he conspired to defraud donors, applicants, and students about the program’s rankings and application process.
Porat was only one of the few liars who were caught, but there are many who have gotten away with their shady conducts because institutions have little incentive to scrutinize them.
As students, we can take action to demand more transparency from schools to disclose how important factors are calculated and reported. On July 12, a former Columbia student filed a class action lawsuit against the university for falsely representing its data that helped it ascend to its previous second place in the U.S. News rankings before being unranked. The lawsuit claims that thousands of students have been misled by Columbia’s misreported data and paid tuition for a university that they otherwise would not have applied to.
It’s time to write a legally binding code of conduct for the institutions and hold them to account in court.
SAM ZOU is a College junior studying political science from Shenzhen, China. His email is email@example.com.