Dismayed, but not quite surprised. In fact, several colleges in recent years have been caught gaming the system — in particular, the avidly watched U.S. News & World Report rankings — by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data or just lying.
In one recent example, Iona College in New Rochelle, north of New York City, acknowledged last fall that its employees had lied for years not only about test scores, but also about graduation rates, freshman retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates and alumni giving.
Other institutions have found ways to manipulate the data without outright dishonesty.
In 2008, Baylor University offered financial rewards to admitted students to retake the SAT in hopes of increasing its average score. Admissions directors say that some colleges delay admission of low-scoring students until January, excluding them from averages for the class admitted in September, while other colleges seek more applications to report a lower percentage of students accepted.
Claremont McKenna, according to Robert Morse, the director of data research at U.S. News, is “the highest-ranking school to have to go through this publicly and have to admit to misreporting.”
This year, U.S. News rated it as the nation’s ninth-best liberal arts college.
There is no reason to think the U.S. News rankings are rife with misinformation, and the publication makes efforts to police the data, adjust its metrics and close loopholes.
But repeated revelations of manipulation show the importance of the rankings in the minds of prospective students, their guidance counselors, parents, the alumni considering donations, the professors weighing job offers — and, of course, the colleges themselves.
“The reliance on this is out of hand,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president who oversees admissions at DePaul University in Chicago. “It’s a nebulous thing, comparing the value of a college education at one institution to another, so parents and students and counselors focus on things that give them the illusion of precision.”
The mixed feelings in the academic world were summed up in a report last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling: Most college admissions officers and high school counselors have a low opinion of the U.S. News rankings, yet they use the published material, whether to gather information about other schools or to market their own.
Claremont McKenna, part of the Claremont Colleges cluster outside Los Angeles, acknowledged Monday that a senior officer had resigned after admitting that he had inflated the average SAT scores given to U.S. News since 2005.
People briefed on the matter identified the officer as Richard C. Vos, vice president and dean of admissions, who once said, “We don’t play yield games,” referring to the practice of encouraging unqualified applicants who can be rejected to make a college seem more competitive.
Mr. Vos, whose name was removed from the school’s online roster of administrators over the weekend, declined to comment Monday night and he did not return calls Tuesday.
SAT score averages are also reported to credit rating firms and the Department of Education, which is looking into Claremont McKenna’s actions, said Justin Hamilton, the agency’s press secretary. He said the department could impose fines and other penalties for supplying misinformation, but rarely did, particularly if the college brought the problem to light on its own.
Mr. Morse, of U.S. News, said that he and a team of four to six people verified much of the information that colleges supplied, comparing it with databases from other sources, and that they performed a service in making the data public. But he conceded that his publication was probably at least part of the reason schools have lied.
Iona’s case was extreme; U.S. News ranked its undergraduate college 30th among “regional universities” in the Northeast, but estimated that with correct data it would have dropped to 50th.