Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Claremont McKenna College admitted that it had inflated the SAT scores of it freshman class and had been engaging in such highbrow deception since 2005. Apparently, the small, elite liberal arts college didn’t have enough going for it already to entice top students to its 25-acre campus in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. Scenic location, reputation as the city of “trees and Ph.Ds” and respectable scores just weren’t enough to push the school into the Top 10 national liberal arts colleges on the annual ranking by U.S. News & World Report. Claremont McKenna, which comes with a tuition sticker price of more than $42,000, continues to occupy the No. 9 spot on the U.S. News 2012 ranking, but the newsmagazine’s online description of the school now carries a disclaimer: “Claremont McKenna College reported test score data inaccurately.” Think of that as the higher ed equivalent of the sports asterisk denoting a tainted record.
The Los Angeles Times upbraided the school in an editorial: “It is bad enough when teachers cheat on tests, but when the cheating is carried out at a college — supposedly an unimpeachable bastion of the disinterested pursuit of pure truth — the notion of honor seems fragile and fleeting indeed.” The incident with Claremont McKenna highlights the all-too-common issue of academic cheating. (In January, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was seeking ideas from the public about improving the integrity of standardized testing.) But it also calls into question the value and reliability of college rankings. Parents and students have come to treat these annual “best” lists as unassailable bibles of academic merit. Schools feel pressure to improve their rankings, often by being selective in how they report their scores. Perhaps the result of this dishonesty in the ranks will be an honest realization of the shortcomings of these college rankings. For more on that, check out this fine New Yorker article by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell to better understand what college rankings really tell us.