Ethical College Admissions: Oklahoma Unranked

The false data reported by the University of Oklahoma for years raises questions about more than one institution's dishonesty, writes Jim Jump.

June 3, 2019
 

“And when we say, A-yip-i-o-e-ay, we’re only saying

You’re doing fine, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, OK”

--Oscar Hammerstein

It’s a safe bet that no one in the state of Oklahoma was saying “A-yip-i-o-e-ay” during the month of May. On Friday the National Weather Service reported that 61 tornadoes hit Oklahoma during May. Oklahoma has experienced record levels of rainfall and catastrophic flooding from the Arkansas River.

No one at the University of Oklahoma, that state’s flagship university, has any reason to say “A-yip-i-o-e-ay” either. But the damage at the university is self-inflicted rather than a product of nature or global warming.

U.S. News & World Report has stripped Oklahoma of its ranking after learning that the university had been supplying incorrect data about alumni giving since 1999. At the end of the week, a former student at the university filed a class action lawsuit on grounds that her decision to attend Oklahoma was based on its U.S. News ranking.

The story about Oklahoma losing its ranking felt like, to quote the American philosopher Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.” When I started "Ethical College Admissions" as a blog back in the fall of 2012, not sure if I would find anything to write about on a regular basis, there was a run of news in the first year about colleges and universities, including really good places like Emory, George Washington and Bucknell Universities, and Claremont McKenna College, misreporting data to U.S. News. It cost several respected veteran admission deans their careers.

In response to those cases, I argued that all of us in the college admission/college counseling profession rely on public trust in what we do. This year we have seen that trust threatened by both the court case against Harvard and the Operation Varsity Blues scandal.

Earning and maintaining trust requires a commitment to truthfulness and transparency. Truthfulness has to be a core value for college admission because the search for truth is at the heart of higher education. When any of us are caught falsifying or misrepresenting data, it hurts all of us.

The nice and easy conclusion in this case, then, is to criticize Oklahoma for misreporting its alumni giving rate for nearly 20 years. Consider that done. But this column subscribes to the philosophy espoused by Ike and Tina Turner in their recording of the song “Proud Mary.” We don’t like “nice and easy” solutions; we prefer “nice and rough.” The truth is that the Oklahoma story raises some larger, more interesting questions.

Let’s start with the lawsuit. It follows in the footsteps of a lawsuit filed by two students in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues revelations arguing that the value of their Stanford degrees had been damaged by the scandal. Is filing frivolous lawsuits against colleges going to be the same kind of fad that swallowing goldfish was a century ago? Are we about to see a new meaning for “trial and error”?

The plaintiff in the Oklahoma lawsuit is Elani Gritzer, a former student at the Price College of Business at OU who transferred to the University of Houston (which has a lower-ranked business school than Oklahoma). She argues that she has been damaged because she selected Price due to its being ranked 45th among public university business schools, and that rank is inflated due to Oklahoma’s false alumni giving percentage. In the suit she also claims that the university did not adequately disclose information about cost, loan debt, program completion and job placement and earnings, requiring her to take out approximately $18,000 in student loans. She also takes issue with the fact that not all of her credits transferred when she went to Houston.

This is not the place to litigate all those issues, but the crux of the case is whether the plaintiff was damaged by Oklahoma’s false data with regard to alumni giving or by U.S. News removing its ranking. That requires answering a different question. Did U.S. News unrank Oklahoma as punishment for submitting false information or because the false data impacted the rank significantly? The latter is generally the justification for removing a ranking.

I’m not capable of answering that question, because I don’t have access to the calculations U.S. News does in developing the rankings. U.S. News is clear about the criteria and the weight accorded to each. Once Bob Morse and staff total up the scores, they recalibrate on a scale of one to 100, with the top university receiving 100. In 2017 there were approximately 230 schools in the National Universities category. The lowest score was a 24. Colleges just making the top 25 had a score of 75, while a score of 62 made the top 50, and 48 the top 100. Oklahoma had a score of 45, tying it for 111 (in 2018 it tied for 97th). What is not clear is how great a difference there is between a 50 and a 48.

The alumni giving category is 5 percent of the total score. Oklahoma had reported a two-year rate of 14 percent, when the actual percentage was just under 10. Is that a seismic change when factored in the overall rating or not?

The broader question is what alumni giving measures. U.S. News sees it as a proxy for “student satisfaction and postgraduate engagement.” But does it measure that or a sophisticated alumni/development operation? A number of years ago my alma mater magically moved into the top 20 in annual giving percentage one year after a donor made a gift in the name of every member of the graduating class.

In the National Universities category in 2017, only six of the top 45 institutions in alumni giving were public. Does that mean that the alumni of private universities are far more satisfied and engaged than those from top public universities? Probably not.

Among the public universities ranked in the top half of the National Universities category in 2017, all but a handful had alumni giving percentages of 7 to 14 percent. Even when corrected to the lower figure, Oklahoma’s rate falls into the range for most of its peers. Given that fact, the corrected figure shouldn’t change its overall ranking substantially unless the reality is that U.S. News is splitting hairs to try to distinguish among universities that aren’t that different. If I’m wrong about that, I’d love to see how the data are actually crunched.

That leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Why did Oklahoma falsify the alumni giving rate for nearly 20 years? Most previous cases of misrepresentation have involved test scores or admit rates (as of last year, U.S. News stopped using selectivity as a factor). Oklahoma has hired the law firm Jones Day to prepare a report, and hopefully it will clear that up. And if Oklahoma has been submitting inflated data for 20 years, what does that say about the quality of U.S. News’s verification procedures?

The ultimate question might be, Why doesn’t U.S. News & World Report make all colleges “unranked”? Several weeks ago, in a column about the College Board’s new “adversity score,” I argued that the attempt to provide context to test scores is laudable, but the effort to convert complex information into a simple score is flawed. The same flaw exists with the attempt to take good, complex information about colleges and turn it into a simplistic ranking.

Free all the ranked colleges and universities, OK? A-yip-i-o-e-ay.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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