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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, September 23, 2013

WaPo: W&L, Other Colleges Goose Rankings by Counting Incomplete Applications to Shrink Acceptance Rate

2014 U.S. News Best CollegesWashington Post:  Universities Can Look More Selective by How They Count Student Applications:

Washington and Lee University declared in its official reports last year that 5,972 students applied for admission and 19% were accepted. Those numbers helped define the public profile of one of the nation’s most-selective liberal arts schools.

They also were the result of a counting method that worked to benefit the university’s image.

Internal university data obtained by The Washington Post show that more than 1,100 applications for the class of 2016 at the private Virginia school — roughly one out of every six — were never completed. The files were missing required elements such as teacher recommendations or test scores, raising questions about how many of them were seriously considered for admission.

If the incomplete applications had been omitted from the official count, university dean of admissions Bill Hartog acknowledged, the admission rate would have been 24%, a 5-percentage-point swing in selectivity. “No matter how you slice it, we’re among the most competitive schools in the country,” Hartog said. He denied that the university had intended to inflate its numbers. “We don’t even think about that stuff.”

What Washington and Lee does in computing its selectivity does not appear to break the rules for reporting data to the federal government or market analysts such as U.S. News & World Report. Some top schools count only completed applications, and others use Washington and Lee’s method.

But interviews with officials at several colleges suggest that the incomplete share of Washington and Lee’s applicant pool last year was unusually large. And the gap between the reported admission rate and what it would have been using a stricter counting method illuminates a growing debate about the reliability of data schools present about themselves. ...

The federal standard — also used by U.S. News and others — is to count only those applicants who have fulfilled the requirements to be considered for admission and who have been notified of one of four actions: admission, non-admission, placement on a waiting list or the withdrawal of an application. But there remains enough subjectivity in what is considered an “actionable” bid for admission that the very definition of an applicant is open to debate.

The University of Virginia, for example, takes a strict view. “If we don’t have enough information to make an admission decision, meaning a transcript, recommendations, etc., we would not count the application in our numbers,” said Greg W. Roberts, U-Va.’s dean of admission. “We do not count or review applications that are incomplete.” The U-Va. admission rate for 2012 was 30%. Harvey Mudd and Wellesley, two liberal arts colleges in the same elite company as Washington and Lee, also said they keep incomplete applications out of their official totals.

But officials with Vassar, Pomona, Bowdoin, Haverford and other prestigious colleges say a modest portion of incomplete applications are routinely included in their totals. Bowdoin spokesman Scott W. Hood said the number of incompletes was “very small” — 49 out of 7,052 — and did not affect the 14% admission rate for the Brunswick, Maine, school’s class entering this year. ... Georgetown University’s dean of admissions, Charles Deacon, said incompletes can account for as much as 5% of the university’s typical reported application total of 20,000. Georgetown’s admission rate for 2012 was 17%. ...

For U.S. News, the admission rate is a small factor in its annual college rankings. But it is displayed prominently on U.S. News Web pages, including sortable charts. Washington and Lee has the 13th-lowest admission rate among schools that U.S. News calls “national liberal arts colleges” in rankings published Sept. 10.

Inside Higher Ed, Validation Required:

Robert Morse, who heads the rankings operation at U.S. News, said that the Common Data Set counts an application as complete as "actionable," meaning that the college can accept, deny or waitlist the applicant. So if a college opted to reject all of those with incomplete applications, it would meet the definition and could count all those applicants. Morse said he would be looking into the issues raised by the Post article.

Via e-mail to Inside HIgher Ed, a spokesman for Washington and Lee said that while the university stands behind its practices, "we always review our processes and practices and will continue to examine our policies and practices in the future, especially in light of the impact technology is having.

TaxProf Blog coverage of the Rankings Hall of Shame:  Bucknell, Claremont McKenna, Emory, George Washington, Illinois, Tulane, and Villanova.

Legal Education | Permalink


This issue hardly belongs in the "rankings hall of shame," as the article does not even show that W&L did anything wrong. Indeed, the author concedes it reported the numbers the same way Georgetown, Vassar, Pomona, Bowdoin, Haverford and other prestigious colleges report them. An analogy to the readers of this blog -- Would one report someone who reported their taxes in a legal and advantageous way, and similar to the way many others report -- as putting them in a hall of shame? Or would you say "for shame" on the drafters of the laws and regulation that do not set out clear enough guidelines?

Posted by: Buster | Sep 23, 2013 11:19:09 AM