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Cheat Sheets: Colleges Inflate SATs And Graduation 
Rates In Popular Guidebooks  
Schools Say They Must Fib To U.S. News and Others 
To Compete Effectively. 
Moody's Requires the Truth
Wall Street Journal,  5 April, 1995, A1
Steve Stecklow
In Money magazine's 1994 college guide, New College of 
the University of South Florida was ranked No. 1 
overall. Among the school's strengths, the guide noted, 
was the freshman class's average Scholastic Aptitude 
Test score: an impressive 1296. This appeared to place 
New College among the most selective schools in the 
nation. But the score -- as well as the pretense of  
exclusivity -- was false.

For years, the Sarasota-based school concedes, it 
deliberately inflated its SAT scores by lopping off the 
bottom-scoring 6% of students, thereby lifting the 
average about 40 points. Admission Director David 
Anderson describes the practice, which he says he 
recently discontinued, as part of the college's 
"marketing strategy."

Though Mr. Anderson acknowledges that such a strategy 
raises "some ethical questions," he points out that New 
College is far from alone. In their heated efforts to 
woo students, many colleges manipulate what they report 
to magazine surveys and guidebooks -- not only on test 
scores but on applications, acceptances, enrollment and 
graduation rates.

"This is awful stuff," says Thomas Anthony, former dean 
of admission at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. 
"But when the American public comes to you and says 
you're not in the top 20 and they're going to make their 
decision based on that, it puts incredible pressure on 
you to have the right-looking numbers."    The 
guidebooks, which have become a powerful influence on 
parents and students choosing schools, routinely publish 
the erroneous statistics. Meanwhile, many of the same 
colleges provide accurate -- and much less flattering -- 
data to debt-ratings agencies, as required when the 
schools sell bonds or notes. Lying to the ratings 
agencies violates federal securities laws and can expose 
schools to huge liabilities; there are no legal 
penalties for misleading guidebook publishers.

The publishers say they try to tailor their survey 
questions to reduce the opportunity for fudging. But, 
says Max Reed, senior editor at Barron's Profiles of 
American Colleges, "If they give us incorrect data, 
there's really not much we can do about it."

Excluding certain groups of low-scoring students from 
their SAT numbers is one of the colleges' most common 
tactics, even though most of the guidebooks specifically 
prohibit it. Many admission officials argue that 
including these students, sometimes admitted under 
special preferences, would put a school at a 
disadvantage in the ratings. Not every college excludes 
students, but those that do so follow rules they make up 

Northeastern University in Boston excludes both 
international students and remedial students, who 
together represent about 20% of the freshman class. The 
practice boosts the school's SAT average by about 50 
points, says provost Michael Baer.

New York University excludes from its SAT scores 
economically disadvantaged students in a special state-
sponsored program. So does Manhattanville College in 
Purchase, N.Y. But Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 
includes them -- except for about 25 who are learning 
disabled. Marist also excludes international students.    
"The reason those two groups are excluded is it just 
skews the average, and it's not accurate for kids who 
are trying to figure out if they're admissible or not," 
says Harry Wood, Marist's vice president for admissions.

Then there is Boston University. It excludes the verbal 
SAT scores, but not the math scores, of about 350 
international students. The reason: Foreign students 
often have trouble with English and tend to do poorly on 
verbal SATs, but many score better than U.S. students in 

Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., provides 
no rationale for overstating its SAT scores by more than 
200 points for the College Handbook, a guide published 
by the College Board. David Waggoner, director of 
undergraduate admissions, says the guidebook numbers 
appear to have been "fabricated" by a former Monmouth 
employee. "They're off the wall," he concedes.

"We accept what the colleges tell us," says Robert 
Seaver, a spokesman for the College Board. He calls the 
Monmouth listing "extremely embarrassing."

"The problem is we're all trying to look better," says 
Steven T. Syverson, former ethics-committee chairman of 
the National Association of College Admission 
Counselors. Mr. Syverson says colleges widely ignore 
NACAC's ethics code, which includes explicit rules 
against statistical manipulation. In particular, the 
code requires that schools report data on "all first-
year admitted or enrolled students, or both, including 
special subgroups."

Mary Lee Hoganson, head guidance counselor at the 
University of Chicago Laboratory High School, says some 
colleges are so obsessed with looking good that they 
employ tactics that hurt students. To appear more 
selective, she says, colleges solicit applications from 
students they don't really want, raising false hopes but 
pumping up the closely scrutinized ratio of rejections 
vs. acceptances. "They need more applications so they 
can turn down more people so they look better in the 
ratings," Mrs. Hoganson says.

Colleges are busily playing this numbers game at a time 
when admissions has become a buyer's market, with many 
schools fiercely scrambling for quality applicants. This 
school year, no fewer than 150 colleges made 
presentations at Mrs. Hoganson's school over a two-month 
application period. "We can't even accommodate them all 
any longer," she says. In this intense climate, college-
admission directors who don't recruit the right mix of 
students often find themselves out of a job.

Money and U.S. News & World Report, though not the other 
guidebook publishers, use the data they receive to rank 
the schools with what appears to be methodical 
exactitude. College officials almost universally disdain 
these rankings, arguing that a college's quality can't 
be judged merely by statistics and opinion polls. But 
they dare not refuse to participate, knowing that the 
rankings can profoundly affect numbers of applications, 
the quality of students who apply and even alumni 

Applications jumped 7%, for instance, after U.S. News 
named Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., the 
No. 1 northern regional-liberal-arts college last fall. 
When the magazine named Lyon College in Batesville, 
Ark., the No. 1 southern regional-liberal-arts college, 
more highly qualified students applied, lifting the 
average SAT scores of applicants 73 points in a single 
year. When the same guide dropped Hamilton College in 
Clinton, N.Y., from its top 25 national liberal-arts 
colleges, two dozen disappointed alumni called the 
school demanding to know what was wrong.

Even the most prestigious colleges trumpet their 
guidebook successes. When Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology summoned reporters to a news conference on 
March 9, it was to announce a competitive breakthrough, 
not a scientific one: Two MIT graduate schools had 
placed first in a U.S. News survey. "We all live and die 
by those rankings," says Gordon Holland, president of 
Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.

Most of the statistics in magazines and guidebooks such 
as Barron's and Peterson's Four-Year Colleges are self-
reported and unaudited. Each guide uses its own formula 
for evaluating colleges, including pollster-style 
surveys, but nearly all factor in the self-reported data 
heavily. As a result, says Roland King, director of 
public relations at the University of Maryland in 
College Park, "They're subject to cooking all the time."

To gauge the accuracy of colleges' reported numbers, 
this newspaper compared data colleges provide to the 
guides with similar statistics they give to debt-rating 
agencies and investors. A review of more than 100 credit 
reports on colleges by Moody's Investors Service Inc. 
and Standard & Poor's, as well as bond prospectuses, 
showed more than two dozen discrepancies in SAT scores, 
acceptance rates and other enrollment data. In nearly 
every case, the Moody's and S&P numbers were less 
favorable to the colleges than the guidebook figures.

A Moody's credit report on Richard Stockton College of 
New Jersey in Pomona, for example, lists an average SAT 
score of 991 on the 1600-point scale for freshmen 
entering in the fall of 1993. But U.S. News lists the 
average score as 1095. Harvey Kesselman, the college's 
vice president for student services, acknowledges that 
the Moody's number is correct and says he cannot explain 
the numbers given to U.S. News.

Editors at U.S. News, Money, Barron's and Peterson's say 
that though they try to fact check, they have never 
compared their own data with information reported to the 
debt-rating agencies; indeed, only U.S. News was aware 
that the agencies collected such information. U.S. News, 
whose college guide sells more copies than any other, 
says it hopes to compare the databases in the future.

    Fudging the guidebook numbers can have a direct 
positive effect on rankings. Edward Hershey, former 
director of communications at Colby College in 
Waterville, Maine, says Colby moved up significantly in 
U.S. News's fall 1992 rankings of national liberal-arts 
colleges through "numbers massage" and an inadvertent 

In a letter last fall to the student newspaper at 
Cornell University, where he now works, Mr. Hershey 
recounted how officials at one college -- which he now 
confirms was Colby -- huddled at "a meeting that could 
only be described as a strategy session on how to cheat 
on the survey."

Though he won't detail the "numbers massage," Mr. 
Hershey says that in completing the U.S. News survey, he 
mistakenly reported that 80%, rather than 60%, of 
Colby's freshmen were in the top 10% of their high-
school class. "It was pure innocence, I swear," he says. 
"Of course, the thing just rolled right on through." He 
says no one at U.S. News caught the error, even though 
the year before Colby had reported the figure as 54%.

When U.S. News's rankings came out in September 1992, 
Colby jumped to 15th place from 20th place. In his 
letter to the Cornell newspaper, Mr. Hershey wrote, "The 
downside was that we spent the following year figuring 
out how to play with some other numbers to preserve our 
competitive advantage and forestall a subsequent plunge 
in the rankings that would have to be explained to 
concerned alumni."

Sally Baker, Colby's current director of communications, 
concedes that the school made an inadvertent error on 
applicants' class rank but denies that officials ever 
intentionally fudged any figures: "The data is real, and 
we are as honest as humans can be," she says.    

Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., is 
another school that benefited from giving U.S. News 
questionable data. The magazine's America's Best 
Colleges 1995 College Guide said that in the fall of 
1993 the school accepted 59% of its freshman applicants, 
a figure that helped place the school in U.S. News's top 
tier of southern colleges and universities. But Moody's, 
in a credit report dated Jan.3, 1995, said that in 1993 
the school accepted 73% of its applicants.

Christian Brothers says the Moody's figure is accurate, 
and it can't explain the number in U.S. News. "We try to 
be honest," says Nick Scully, vice president for 
institutional advancement. "This doesn't look real 
honest and I don't know if it was on purpose or not.

Acceptance rates at Bard College, a highly regarded 
liberal-arts school, don't square, either. Moody's says 
the college, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., accepted 
62.6% of its freshman applicants for fall 1993. U.S. 
News reports the figure at 44%.

Both figures are wrong, says Mary Inga Backlund, Bard's 
director of admission. She says the figures given to 
Moody's were provided by the college's business office 
and excluded disadvantaged applicants excused from 
paying a $40 application fee, but included transfer 
students who should have been excluded. "This is a 
conflict that we have regularly with the business 
office," Ms. Backlund says. The U.S. News figure, she 
adds, "was a transcription error on my part." Bard's 
actual acceptance rate: 47%, she says.

Even Harvard University, often the top-ranked school in 
the nation, shows up with slightly conflicting SAT data. 
Harvard gave U.S. News a range of SAT scores for fall 
1993 freshmen, and the magazine placed the midpoint at 
1400 -- a benchmark score that's a well-established mark 
of excellence. But Harvard's midpoint in Moody's reports 
was 1385, derived from a lower range that Harvard 
provided Moody's.

Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admission for Harvard 
and Radcliffe Colleges, describes the Moody's numbers as 
a "mystery" and says the U.S. News figures were 
accurate. "I don't think this is significant," she says. 
A Moody's spokeswoman says the score it published was 
exactly what Harvard told it.

Graduation rates are also subject to sleight of hand. 
The National Collegiate Athletic Association requires 
its members to disclose graduation rates for the student 
body as a whole and for student-athletes. A comparison 
of the numbers reported by 300 colleges to the NCAA and 
to U.S. News found discrepancies in more than 50 
instances; in nearly every case, the overall graduation 
rates reported to the NCAA were lower. Schools may have 
an incentive to play down overall graduation rates to 
the NCAA so that their student-athletes' rates look 
better in comparison, college officials say.

Acceptance rates provide further opportunities for 
manipulation. Conrad Sharrow, who was dean of admission 
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., from 
1986 to 1993, says about 20% of the school's applicants 
were rejected by the specific program for which they 
applied but were accepted into another undergraduate 
program at RPI. All these students were counted as 
rejects in the school's reported admission figures. That 
way the school appeared to be more selective overall 
than it actually was.

He says he also used waiting lists to enhance the 
numbers. "Suppose you had 5,000 applications and suppose 
in the first round you accepted 2,500 of those. Then you 
had a waiting list," he explains. "So when the question 
comes up, how many did you accept, you can in good 
conscience say you accepted 2,500. That's true." The 
school, however, would later accept another "400 or 500" 
students off the waiting list but continue to count them 
as rejects, he says.

Mr. Sharrow says he justified such actions because the 
rankings emphasize a college's acceptance rate, a figure 
that he believes doesn't connote quality. He says if 
college guides "abuse" such numbers "then what you've 
got to do as an admissions person is to juggle them in 
such a way so the abuse is minimized." Rensselaer's new 
dean of admissions, Teresa C. Duffy, says she stopped 
such practices last year.

Mel Elfin, special-projects editor at U.S. News, defends 
the magazine's college guide despite some school's 
efforts to deceive readers. Roughly 90% of the 
information U.S. News prints is accurate, he estimates, 
adding: "Our job now is not to throw our hands up in the 
air and say it doesn't work but to continue to beef up 
our defensive line."

But colleges are so accustomed to cheating by now, 
contends college consultant Martin Nemko, that it may be 
impossible to put out a reliable guidebook. Mr. Nemko, 
of Oakland, Calif., says he was slated to write a guide 
for Little, Brown & Co., a unit of Time Warner Inc., 
that would have required schools to distribute 
questionnaires to random groups of students.

But in January, he wrote to colleges saying he had been 
forced to scrap the project after receiving "sufficient 
evidence that more than a few institutions will be 
taking extraordinary measures to guarantee that their 
student questionnaires paint an inordinately flattering 

One example was Texas A&M University, which told him it 
planned to distribute the surveys mostly to honor 
students, Mr. Nemko says. Admission Director Gary 
Engelgau now says he hadn't finally decided on a 
distribution list but notes that honor students are 
generally more likely to fill out surveys. He adds: "If 
you ask me to do something, as much as I can within the 
rules, I'll try to do it so that it makes me look good."   
                      ---  Graduation Rates

Location                   U.S. News     NCAA

 Bowling Green State University
  Bowling Green, Ohio        65%         58%

 Campbell University
  Buies Creek, N.C.          52          46

 University of Cincinnati
  Cincinnati                 52          47

 Coastal Carolina University
  Myrtle Beach, S.C.         37          32

 University of Hartford
  West Hartford, Conn.       59          53

 Indiana University
  Bloomington, Ind.          66          62

 Jackson State University
  Jackson, Miss.             34          23

 La Salle University
  Philadelphia               76          68

 Long Island University
  Brooklyn, N.Y.             55          28

 Louisiana Tech University
  Ruston, La.                44          38

 University of Md., Eastern Shore
  Princess Anne, Md.         29          20

 Mercer University
  Macon, Ga.                 75          40

 University of Minn.-Twin Cities
  Minneapolis                43          38

 University of Missouri
  Kansas City                43          39

 Niagara University
  Niagara, N.Y.              59          55

 Nicholls State University
  Thibodaux, La.             30          20

 N'western State Univ. of Louisiana
  Natchitoches, La.          27          20

 Ohio University
  Athens, Ohio               62          58

 Providence College
  Providence, R.I.           93          87

 St. Francis College
  Loretto, Pa.               62          57

 University of San Diego
  San Diego                  64          59

 San Jose State University
  San Jose, Calif.           38          32

 University of South Florida
  Tampa, Fla.                46   \       40

 Southern Illinois University
  Carbondale, Ill.           43           37

 Southern Utah University
  Cedar City, Utah           45           27

 Tennessee State University
  Nashville, Tenn.           40           24

 University of Toledo
  Toledo, Ohio               46           39

 Wagner College
  Staten Island, N.Y.        67           43

 Wake Forest University
  Winston-Salem, N.C.        86           82

   Note: Colleges gave a variety of reasons for 
discrepancies, including misinterpretation or 
misunderstanding of instructions; clerical or computer 
errors; and inclusion of part-time, summer or associate-
degree students in one survey but not in the other.

   Sources: U.S. News's America's Best Colleges 1995 
College Guide and 1994 NCAA Division 1 Graduation-Rates 
Report. Figures represent the average percentage of 
freshmen enrolled 1984--1987 who graduated within six 
years. Graduation rates count for 15% of U.S. News's 
overall rankings.  
  SAT Scores


Boston University/Boston        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1150. Excluded the verbal, but not the math, 
scores of about 350 foreign students.

Florida Institute/Melbourne, Fla.        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1065. The scores excluded foreign students.

Harvard University/Cambridge, Mass.        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1400. Gave Moody's a middle range of scores 
with a midpoint of 1385.

Manhattanville College/Purchase, N.Y.        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1068. The scores excluded economically 
disadvantaged students in a special state-sponsored 

Marist College/Poughkeepsie, N.Y.        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 985. The scores excluded about 25 students 
who are learning disabled, as well as international 

Marshall University/Huntington, W.Va.    
Told Barron's 47% of its students scored 21 or better on 
the American College Test (ACT). Told  Peterson's 36% of 
its students scored 21 or better.

Monmouth University/W. Long Branch, N.J.       
Gave College Handbook a middle range of SAT scores with 
a midpoint of 1115. Gave U.S. News a middle range of 
scores with a midpoint of 930, which the admission 
director says excluded 150  remedial students. Told 
Moody's the median score was 816.

New York University/New York        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1145. The scores excluded about 100 
economically disadvantaged students in a 
special state-sponsored program.

Northeastern University/Boston        
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 995. The scores excluded foreign and 
remedial students.

Richard Stockton College of N.J./Pomona, N.J. 
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1095. Told S&P the average SAT score was 
1041. Told Moody's the average SAT score was 991. An 
official says only the Moody's figure includes all 

Sarah Lawrence College/Bronxville, N.Y.         
Gave U.S. News a middle range of SAT scores with a 
midpoint of 1215. Gave College Handbook a middle range 
of scores with a midpoint of 1145. Told Moody's the 
median score was 1150.

 Note: Test scores are for fall 1993 freshman class. 
SAT scores represent combined verbal and math scores. 
SAT test-score ranges are for the middle 50% of students. 
Median is the middle score: Half are below, half are above
Average is the sum total of freshman scores divided by 
the number of freshmen.    -

--                   Acceptance Rates

 Location                        U.S. News   Moody's

 Bard College
  Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.        44%        62.6%

 Christian Bros. University
  Memphis, Tenn.                   59         73.0

 DePaul University
  Chicago                          74         82.4

 Elizabeth City State University
  Elizabeth City, N.C.             54         73.0

 Georgian Court College
  Lakewood, N.J.                   81         84.4

 Hood College
  Frederick, Md.                   81         84.6

 Kent State University
  Kent, Ohio                       33         86.7

 Nicholls State University
  Thibodaux, La.                   94         100.0

 Wesleyan University
  Middletown, Conn.                41         42.5

Note: Acceptance rate represents the percentage of 
applicants accepted for the fall 1993 freshman class. 
Some colleges attributed discrepancies to transcription 
or clerical errors; others said they could find no 

Sources: U.S. News's America's Best Colleges 1995 College Guide
and recent Moody's Investors Service Inc. credit reports