U.S. News has removed George Washington University from its influential college rankings after learning that the school submitted inflated figures. This isn't the first time this year a school has been caught sneaking doctored stats past U.S. News' fact-checking operation, but it is the first time one was unranked as a result.
George Washington University committed the sin of over-reporting the number of incoming freshmen coming from the top 10 percent of their respective high school classes. Instead of 78 percent, only 58 percent had an elite spot in their high schools' top decile. Administrators had inflated those numbers for over a decade. U.S. News has responded by stripping GW of its No. 51 rank and tossing it into the "unranked" section, the heap in which it piles all those schools it doesn't even bother to crunch numbers for. "This Unranked status will last until next fall's publication of the 2014 edition of the Best Colleges rankings, and until George Washington confirms the accuracy of the school's next data submission in accordance with U.S. News's requirements," writes U.S. News's director of data research Bob Morse.
Don't start shouting "scandalous!" just yet, though. Universities have been caught submitting fudged numbers quite often. This year alone, Emory University admitted to sending in doctored test scores, and an internal probe revealed that Claremont McKenna College had been up to the same shenanigans for the past six years. Neither were relegated to the unranked category, though. Perhaps schools keep lying about their statistics because it's so easy to do. The Best Colleges report might be the high school overachiever's bible, but critics doubt the soundness of its methodology. "Honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors. The whole exercise is a little silly," The New York Times' Joe Nocera recently wrote. "Universities that want to game the rankings can easily do so."
Aside from numbers that can be easily cross-referenced, the honor system is basically the only thing holding schools accountable for what they report. Even U.S. News's editor and chief content officer acknowledges that the process is full of holes, telling Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters, "Some of the data is checkable. But if somebody is intent on cheating—just like on Wall Street—it’s really hard to catch them." Of course GW shouldn't have sent in bogus stats, deceiving potential students about the caliber of their incoming classes. And of course U.S. News is within its rights to take GW off the list. But perhaps they should reconsider their policy of publishing unverified figures that come straight from the schools that stand to benefit from inflating them. Or perhaps parents and their college-bound teens should eye these rankings with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Whoever's behind GW's Twitter account doesn't seem fazed by the news. After all, as it notes, the school is still pretty high on something called the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange!