“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”  That is not only my favorite quote from the renowned American philosopher Yogi Berra (followed closely by “You can observe a lot just by watching” and “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”), but also my reaction when I learned that a senior admissions officer at Flagler College has stepped down after admitting to manipulating admissions data between 2010 and 2013.

Yes, once again we have a college or university admitting that its admissions statistics are inflated.  The list of miscreants—Claremont McKenna, Emory, GW, Bucknell, Mary Hardin-Baylor—reads like a list of battles from the Civil or Revolutionary Wars, and in fact it is difficult to know whether they are isolated incidents (well, not that isolated) or battles in a war for the soul of college admissions—business vs. profession, education vs. marketing/branding, good vs. evil (that might be overly dramatic).

I have posted on this topic several times before, and worry even more than usual that I will repeat myself, but the news connects to several issues I’ve been thinking about lately.

First of all, I’m sad to see another senior member of our profession forced to step down in disgrace, even as I recognize that misconduct by any of us reflects badly on all of us and damages the trust and credibility that is at the heart of our ability to serve the public good effectively.  I don’t know Marc Williar, the Flagler VP who stepped down, but after more than twenty years of service to Flagler and our profession, I hate to see his service end suddenly and ignominiously.

It makes me worry about the future of our profession.  After my last post, remembering the late Fred Hargadon, a regular correspondent wrote that admission deans like Fred Hargadon and Charlie Deacon at Georgetown (mercifully still with us) are an endangered species, that the generation of admissions officers to follow will not have the admissions-as- counseling mindset or the institutional support to practice student-centered college admissions that many of us entered the profession believing in. 

Several years ago I was contacted by a search consultant looking to fill the Admissions Dean position at a college I know well.  I happened to recommend the person who ultimately got the job, but in the course of the conversation the consultant asked if I knew of younger admissions professionals ready to step up to being a Dean or VP.  I responded that I knew a number of young professionals who were very good Assistant Deans, but I wasn’t sure they would make great Deans.  Among my friends who are independent school counselors, I have often wondered if the next generation will be as committed/neurotic about the job as our schools have counted on us being.

Of course, that may be a concern that every generation has about succeeding generations (and therefore further confirmation that I have become old and crotchety).  I’m guessing that plenty of folks had their doubts about me (and may still). And while I worry about the ethical common ground within our profession suffering from erosion in future generations, the reality is that those who have been guilty of falsifying data have been experienced professionals who are my peers.

That raises the question, How and why does this occur?  The easy answer is to place blame on the rogue admissions officer who manipulates data to make his institution and himself look better, and Mark Williar at Flagler accepted full responsibility in an interview with the St. Augustine Record.  I suspect the truth is more nuanced.

In the Flagler case, as in most of the other cases, the manipulation occurred in response to a one-year drop in profile numbers, specifically SAT scores, in the midst of long-term improvement.  We know there is intense pressure on admissions offices to increase applications, raise SAT scores, increase diversity, and lower the discount rate, all at the same time. Being successful just raises expectations.  Is it any wonder that an individual would buckle under the pressure and fudge the numbers in response?  The most insidious part of the “business-fication” college admissions is the assumption that if you’re not improving, you’re falling behind. Does a ten-point decrease in average SAT score really mean that an institution is markedly different? At what point is a drop in numbers truly meaningful?  Metrics are supposed to help measure progress in achieving goals, not become the goals.

I don’t know Flagler well (but am aware that the founder had connections to Richmond), but for many years it has been one of a handful of colleges and universities that claimed to have an acceptance rate much lower than I would have expected.  In 1992 Flagler reported to U.S. News an acceptance rate of 31%, lower that year than MIT, Duke, and Penn, among others. What raised eyebrows was that its average SAT scores were 300-400 points lower than other institutions with similarly low acceptance rates. That didn’t add up.  Either Flagler was an incredibly unique institution or it was playing games to keep the acceptance rate low.  I have had other counselors describe some of those games, but I won’t comment given that I have no personal knowledge. 

If I, a casual reader of the U.S. News rankings, noticed that disconnect, it makes me wonder why the folks at U.S. News didn’t pick up on it.  That leads to my final point.  The federal government is currently trying to develop a rankings-like system to evaluate colleges and universities in areas such as access, affordability, and outcomes.  I will devote a subsequent post to PIRS (Postsecondary Institution Ratings System), but two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Education hosted a technical symposium inviting experts to weigh in on what metrics the new “rankings” should include.  One of those experts was Bob Morse of U.S. News, described in a Washington Post article as the “guru of college rankings.”  Morse urged the government to ensure that colleges do not misreport data.  Perhaps U.S. News will share its verification system, given that it always responds to revelations of data misrepresentation expressing confidence that the misrepresentation is isolated and not common practice.  That confidence is at odds with a survey of admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed.  That survey indicated that 90% believe that other institutions misrepresent data, and only 7% believe that those who rank have reliable systems in place to prevent falsifying data.

On this issue, I’ve had enough “déjà vu all over again.”