The number 3 carries with it a power and significance that few other numbers possess.  In Christian theology there is the Trinity, and in hockey there is the hat trick.  There are three wise men, three musketeers, three tenors, three little pigs, and three stooges.  In baseball you have three strikes and three outs.

There is also an old saying that bad things happen in threes.  Those of us in the college admissions profession better hope that bad things happen only in threes after the news this morning that for the third time this year a prominent institution has admitted to inflating and misreporting admissions data.

Today’s culprit is George Washington University, which has updated the famous quote from its namesake, “I cannot tell a lie,” to “I cannot tell a lie (any longer).”  According to today’s Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education, an internal investigation showed that GW has been submitting incorrect data regarding class rank.  For the current year GW reported that 78% of incoming freshman were in the top 10% of their high school classes when the actual number of 58%.  The discrepancy comes from the fact that rank was estimated for some outstanding students coming from schools that do not provide class rank.  According to the Chronicle, only 38% of GW freshmen had class rank reported.

I don’t find the revelations about GW quite as egregious as the manipulation of SAT scores reported earlier this year for Claremont McKenna and Emory.  (I will follow up this post with some thoughts about the Emory situation shortly.) I concur with my St. Christopher’s colleague Scott Mayer, who said this morning upon learning about GW, “It’s a shame that schools get into trouble for doing stupid stuff.”  Implicit in his comment is that the real shame is doing the stupid stuff in the first place.

Calling it stupid is not excusing it or lessening judgment that it’s wrong.  The estimating of class rank was not an accident but deliberate, a form of institutional cosmetic surgery designed to make GW look more attractive.  It’s also not clear whether rank was estimated for every student from schools that don’t rank, or only those likely to raise the percentage.  The latter would make the deception more ethically offensive.

The broader, recurring question for all of these cases is how meaningful these measures of institutional “quality” or “prestige” really are.  What do admit rate or yield or mean SAT scores really tell us, and is any potential meaning mitigated by how easily they can be manipulated? In the case of class rank, is there any point in reporting what percentage of freshmen are in the top 10% of the class when two-thirds of applicants come from school that don’t rank?

A year ago, at the NACAC Conference in New Orleans, I was a presenter on a panel devoted to “College Admission and Counseling in the 21st Century.”  My fellow panelists were Jerry Lucido, Executive Director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California, and Lee Coffin, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Tufts.

Jerry’s remarks at the session referenced an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in January, 2011.  That article called on colleges to rethink the metrics they use.  He argued that colleges and universities would be better served measuring their success in:

--educating first generation and low-income students;

--habits of mind and skills developed;

--student participation in research, international experiences, community service, and interdisciplinary study.

Lee talked about the selective admissions process, and differentiated between “data” and “voice.”  He argued that voice is far more important because so many students have strong data (grades, scores).

That’s true for institutions as well as for students.  Colleges and universities focus on making their data look impressive but ignore or fail to find their voice (or the focus on manipulating image through data reflects their voice).  The college experience, as well as the college admissions business, is far more about voice than data.