Claremont McKenna College, a small, private liberal arts college about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, was ranked number 18 in Kiplinger's latest 100 Best Values in Private Colleges. Announced in our December 2011 issue and in a highly popular Web story on Kiplinger.com, the rankings focus on schools with strong academic qualities that also meet our definition of affordability -- based on total cost, need- and non-need-based aid, and average student debt upon graduation.
Last week, however, we learned that the school had provided deliberately falsified SAT scores of incoming freshmen -- one of the factors we use to measure academic competitiveness. To preserve the integrity of our rankings, we pulled Claremont McKenna from the list. After recomputing the rankings based on what the college says is accurate SAT data, we discovered that the inflated figures did not give the school an advantage in our rankings. Honest data would have earned Claremont McKenna the number-18 ranking. Still, the school will not be reinstated to the 2012 rankings.
"After careful deliberation, we believe that the best way to preserve the integrity of our rankings -- and the trust our readers put in them -- is to make it clear that deliberate falsification of the data will not be tolerated," said Kevin McCormally, editorial director of Kiplinger. "Any school found to have submitted falsified data -- whether via self-disclosure or thanks to a whistle-blower -- will not be included in Kiplinger's rankings."
How Kiplinger's ranks colleges
Jane Bennett Clark, Kiplinger's senior editor who oversees the annual college ranking project, explains that the magazine uses objective criteria to measure academic quality and affordability -- our definition of value. On the quality side, which is more heavily weighted, the measures include admission rate, student-faculty ratio and SAT scores of incoming freshmen. On the cost side, our criteria include total cost of attendance, average financial aid and average debt on graduation among students who borrow.
We don't inject subjective opinions of college presidents on the merits of competing colleges, Clark notes, or the results of student surveys on the best school for "Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, clove-smoking vegetarians." We have concocted no whimsical categories, such as "least rigorous" or "best weather" or "happiest students."
The numbers we use come from the colleges, via our data provider, Peterson's, a division of education services firm Nelnet, or through our own reporting. We vet the numbers, some 4,000 of them, for sense and consistency with previous years, but we also rely on the colleges to report them accurately and honestly. If we see a number that looks too high or too low, we follow up with the college and adjust, if necessary.
For all that, our rankings rely largely on the honor system. If a college deliberately submits false data, as was the case with Claremont McKenna, it undermines the very outcome we are trying to achieve: an objective assessment of best college values.
That's why we dropped Claremont McKenna from this year's rankings -- not from a desire to punish what by all accounts is a fine school, but to reassert our commitment to fairness, accuracy and integrity, and to put colleges on notice that we will tolerate no less. We expect to include Claremont McKenna in next year’s rankings for its longstanding, and legitimate, record for value.
The SAT scandal
That's what they’re calling this issue at Claremont McKenna. The Claremont Port Side, a campus publication, reports that the school’s longtime dean of admissions, Richard Vos, "systematically manipulated" SAT data for years. (The school says that privacy laws and college personnel policy prevent it from disclosing the name of the person involved but says the responsible individual has resigned.) A Port Side analysis of the inflated data found that since 2005, SAT verbal scores were exaggerated by an average of more than 17 points (out of 800 total) and math scores by an average of 10.5 points (out of 800).
Marc Wojno, Kiplinger chief of research, says that such discrepancies might well have affected the Kiplinger rankings. But the inflation in the 2010 data used in the latest rankings was more modest. There was no exaggeration in the math scores, for example, and just four points were added to reported verbal scores.
Is cheating widespread?
Excellent reporting on the Claremont McKenna story by New York Times reporter Daniel E. Slotnik has focused attention on college rankings in general. "The inaccurate numbers were a rare example of an institute of higher learning falsifying data submitted to a rankings agency," Slotnik wrote, "and appear to be the work of an individual . . . But Claremont McKenna College was far from alone. Many schools employ a variety of manipulative, if not deceitful, methods to alter their appearance before rankings organizations."
For more on attempts at gaming the system, read the New York Times' article, Gaming the College Rankings.