George Washington University on Thursday became the third private university this year to admit that it has been reporting incorrect information about its new students  -- both on the university's website and in information provided to U.S. News & World Report for rankings.
In the case of GW, the university -- for at least a decade -- has been submitting incorrect data on the class rank of new students. For the most recent class of new students, George Washington reported that 78 percent of new students were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The actual proportion of such students is 58 percent.
According to the university, the problem was identified over the summer when a new provost reorganized admissions functions, and reviewed admissions statistics. The university found that for applicants whose high schools don't calculate ranks (a growing trend among high schools), the university estimated the class rank, based on grades and other factors. That policy is not permitted by U.S. News. After finding out what had been going on with class rank, the university had an outside audit done of all admissions data that is reported (including SAT scores) and found no other problems.
The guide that U.S. News sends to colleges specifically states that the institutions -- in calculating the percentage of students in the top 10 percent of their classes -- should include only students for whom the information is supplied by high schools.
In an interview, Forrest Maltzman, the senior vice provost who has been overseeing admissions since July, said that the university believes that the submission of incorrect class rank scores started more than a decade ago. but that the impact of this approach was minimal at first. Over the last 10 years, more high schools have stopped producing class ranks. Further, as GW has become more competitive in admissions, so more admitted students would have had high class ranks (or the grades that would have led GW to estimate that they were in the top 10 percent of their classes).
Maltzman said it was unclear who had come up with the idea of estimating students' class ranks. But he said he was confident that whoever did was no longer in a position of authority in admissions. Asked if there had been sanctions against anyone as a result of the discovery, Maltzman said yes, but declined to provide specifics. He said he believed that the calculations were not made with any malice.
Since the university discovered the problem, GW has instituted new rules in which the university's Office of Academic Planning and Assessment, not admissions, will handle requests for information by groups that rank colleges.
Robert Morse, who heads rankings at U.S. News, said that his colleagues were calculating whether the accurate information would change GW's ranking, but he said that "it would be a slight change" if there were one.
U.S. News relies on the honesty of colleges, and does not verify the accuracy of data received. Asked whether the news from George Washington -- following the other revelations this year -- suggested a major problem, Morse said via e-mail that it did not.
"The number of admitted incorrect submissions out all colleges is very small -- 3 out the nearly 1,400-plus schools we rank. We think the fact that schools are coming forward and going through the pain of these public disclosures about their data misreporting shows how serious schools are taking the issue of data integrity and how they want to be accurate going forward. The schools involved also say they have changed their data reporting system."
In this year's Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors  (conducted after the news about Claremont McKenna and Emory), 1 percent reported that they had submitted incorrect information about their classes of admitted students, but 91 percent said that they believed other institutions have falsely reported scores and other data.