In Clemson Rankings Controversy, Most College Officials Assume Everyone Games the System
Last week’s controversy over a Clemson University official’s admission that the land-grant institution had “walked the fine line between illegal, unethical, and really interesting” in efforts to rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings reminded us of a special report we published two years ago.
In remarks at a meeting of the Association for Institutional Research, the Clemson official, Catherine E. Watt, said that the university’s single-minded pursuit of a higher ranking had led it to manipulate class sizes, to double its tuition so it would lower student-faculty ratios, and to rank all other colleges but Clemson as “below average” in U.S. News surveys of academic reputation. Clemson quickly denied that it had ever sought to manipulate its U.S. News ranking, insisting that Ms. Watt’s comments were “outrageous” examples of “urban legends.”
But even if true, the steps Clemson allegedly took to influence U.S. News would hardly be unusual, to judge from The Chronicle’s 2007 report, which noted that the magazine’s rankings had become the tail wagging the higher-education dog, by changing how many college officials set their institutional priorities.
For example, colleges have solicited nominal donations from alumni, in order to raise their giving percentages; encouraged applications from students they had no intention of accepting, in order to increase the appearance of selectivity; and creatively interpreted how they should report the required data to U.S. News. Colleges are reluctant to admit that they “game” the figures, but most such methods are so well known that many officials assume that most of their competitors engage in them.
So what makes Ms. Watt’s assertions so notable is not their novelty, but, rather, their open acknowledgment of behavior few colleges would admit to. It’s also notable that Clemson has enjoyed such success in what many would call gaming the system, if Ms. Watt spoke the truth. As the 2007 report found, the criteria by which U.S. News ranks colleges and universities overwhelmingly favor private institutions and hurt public institutions.
Despite that marked disadvantage, Clemson was able to rise from 38th among public research universities in 2001 to 22nd in 2008. —Andrew Mytelka