Many of us were irate over the disclosure that our school had been misreporting data to U.S. News — resulting in GW being stripped of its ranking as a top 50 college. The university has now released more information on this calamity in a posting from Vice Provost Forrest Maltzman.
The false reporting emerged as a result of the reorganization of the university’s undergraduate enrollment management functions in late August. An audit, ordered by Baker Tilly, began in September and the results were given to the Board of Trustees Finance and Audit Committee in October. They proceeded to correct the data for the class of 2015 in November and informed U.S. News and World Report and the GW community of the discrepancy Nov. 8.
The problem is that many schools do not report the ten percent ranking used by U.S News so the university was in the practice of estimating the class ranking for unranked students based on their grade point average. This resulted in reporting that 78 percent of our students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The actual figure should have been 58 percent. We have been misreporting the figure for over a decade.
The data reporting function has now been moved to the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment, rather than the Admissions Office. There will also be a new oversight system for data.
The new information is helpful. As a threshold matter, I should note that I have always been skeptical of the reliance on the class ranking category, which is given a weight of six percent in the ultimate college ranking. Not only do I expect that the same problem self-reported by GWU is occurring at other schools, but the data point is in my view meaningless. Schools have wildly different grading systems and ranking approaches in high school — including no ranking. Some high schools can report a top ten percent figure based on GPA that account for more than the actual top ten percent of students numerically. With two-thirds of schools not doing any such ranking at all, this lack of uniformity makes the data point a bit of a farce.
None of that excuses our own false reporting. It should have been obvious that our staff had an incentive to err on the side of higher class standing reports. Given the importance of the U.S. News ranking, it is difficult to see how one of these data points would be treated in such a casual way, particularly when the error extended over a decade and uniformly worked to our advantage. I remain unclear on how we have held anyone accountable for these errors or how this could happen with so many people involved in these annual reports.
My greatest concern (beyond our ethical failure) is that this scandal has undermined years of progress at George Washington, which has gone through a transformation in new buildings, expanded faculty, and sharp improvement in admissions. While many schools are slipping back in this economy, George Washington is one of the schools making a massive investment in new research facilities and development. That is the great irony behind this controversy. The inflation of this data point has resulted in the false impression that GWU is not a top 50 college, which it clearly is. If anything, the school has been underrated but has in recent years moved steadily up the list of universities. I am incredibly proud of this school and what we offer the students. This is an amazing place to go to school, just a couple blocks from the White House, State Department, and Washington mall. This is a relatively small university that has the broad selection of courses and faculty of a university while retaining the sense of community of a college. In the last few years, everyone — students, faculty, and staff — have been working hard to showcase our programs and pride at GW.
While self-reporting is admirable, the long-standing misreporting should never have occurred in the first place. It is not enough to say that we simply erred every year for ten years to our advantage. Even if this was a negligent, as opposed to intentional, violation, it showed as lack of concern over our ethical duty as academicians to report data accurately and fully. That failure of our administrators is now being born by our students, faculty, and staff. We are better than this and we will now have to re-double our efforts to show that GWU does not need accounting gimmicks to claim our standing with the top colleges and universities.