As the president of a small, selective – and, I hesitate to add, highly ranked – liberal arts college, I’d like to say that I’m surprised by the recent news  that Claremont McKenna College has been submitting false SAT scores for incoming freshmen to, among others, U.S. News & World Report for the last six years. And I’d like to say that I believe that whatever the reason for the transgression, we can all rest assured that it’s an aberration, an unseemly and unfortunate action of a single bad actor – in this case a senior admissions official at what is clearly a fine college. Sadly, I can’t in good faith say either of those things.
We should have seen this coming.
But, as history has taught us, the tip of the iceberg is sometimes pretty easy to miss. And what’s below the surface? An entire panoply of sophisticated methods of gaming the system – all on the margins of acceptable practices and mostly, we hope, well clear of the boundary that Claremont McKenna crossed.
For instance, since some ranking formulas rely heavily on low admission rates as a measure of selectivity, it’s not uncommon for colleges to cast the broadest net possible when seeking applicants – with the certain knowledge that many of those applicants will not qualify for admission. Conversely, when calculating the percentage of living alumni who give, it makes more sense to cast a smaller net, leading to wildly different definitions of what constitutes “living” alumni, all for the sake of a higher level of alumni participation.
For years, those of us who are entrusted with the job of guiding places like Claremont McKenna or any other institution of higher education have been playing a dangerous game of chicken with college rankings. Few of us have any confidence in their ability to truly represent what we are all about, or gauge, in any meaningful way, our capacity to transform the lives of those we serve. Yet we – and I include Colby College – continue to participate. But why?
In part because we recognize that, much to our dismay, the college experience has been increasingly commodified over the last decade. Students and families turn to rankings in much the same way we peruse consumer guides before buying a major appliance, comparing models, makes, and features to determine – prior to our actual use – which one will suit us best. In some ways, the White House’s recent proposition to create “easy to read” scorecards for colleges is a logical – and, I would argue, unfortunate – evolution of this process.
But we also participate – and this admission makes me a bit squeamish – because of the tremendous risk inherent in not doing so. It's one thing to believe, as I do, that the tangible difference in being ranked, say, 9th or 29th, is meaningless, and that for many students, the likelihood of personal success has nothing whatsoever to do with rankings of their college. But I’m also sure that, absent collective action, any college that opts out of the rankings game invites potentially negative outcomes. And, as those who have been entrusted to safeguard both the present and the future of the institutions we serve, that’s a risk that few presidents or boards are prepared to take.
Or are they?
Perhaps the time has come for us to admit that we are trying to work within a system that substitutes measures of inputs – how many volumes are in the library, for example, for measures of outcomes – how many graduates have gone on to become useful, productive, and engaged citizens in their communities.
Perhaps the time has come for us to admit that we are trying to work within a system that encourages us to skew our work toward improving our performance in the rankings rather than focusing on our core educational missions; deploy teams of people to squeeze each ranking data point until it screams, rather than take all possible measures to find students who seek – and will truly benefit from – the distinctive experience we each have to offer.
And perhaps the time has come to admit that we are trying to work within a system that is such a powerful corrupting influence on us all that it has the power to make a senior official at a college like Claremont McKenna take the catastrophic professional and reputational risk of fudging SAT data to make already outstanding students look just a shade better.
It’s time for us to take collective action. To speak loudly and clearly and in a single voice that we will not participate in that kind of system.
We could, as Colby and many other colleges have already done, pledge to no longer use rankings to promote ourselves. But, as well intentioned as these efforts are, they have done little to mitigate the influence of these instruments. Suppose every college in the country stopped participating in these ill-defined measures of quality? And suppose we found new ways to collaborate with those who would rank us, ways that generate information to better help prospective students and their families make an informed decision?
And finally, suppose we all agreed to reclaim our integrity by not playing along with a system that both encourages and rewards deceit?
Now THAT would be surprising.
William D. Adams is the 19th president of Colby College, in Waterville, Maine.