Cherry picked

George Washington University and its administrators should be punished for perpetrating academic fraud that inflated its position in college rankings

Although George Washington allegedly could not tell a lie, the university named in his honor now stands accused of conducting one of the largest scandals of academic dishonesty in the era of modern colleges.

George Washington University — the private institution in Washington, D.C. — admitted Thursday that it had altered the statistics of class rank for years of incoming students. Though the act of its admitting its misdeeds does earn George Washington points for integrity, it nevertheless fabricated its numbers for the sake of collegiate rankings. As more schools continue to indulge in such practice — George Washington being the third major university to do so this year — ranking bodies should seriously consider banning from their lists the schools that commit such offenses. And George Washington should hold responsible those officials who were guilty of fabrication.

The misreporting at George Washington has occurred for more than a decade, the university announced. Specifically, it centered around the notion of class rankings — both on the university’s website, and when solicited by ranking bodies such as U.S. News and World Report – which George Washington did not correctly display. For instance, this year, George Washington said 78 percent of its incoming students were ranked in their high schools’ top 10 percent. In reality, only 58 percent of its incoming students had achieved such a ranking.

In itself, this statistic may seem unimportant. Its relevance becomes apparent, however, when viewed in its context. Due to poor statistical methods and disingenuous oversight, George Washington has made similar numerical flaws for a number of years. For more than a decade, the university would accurately provide the class ranking data for its students whose high schools had ranked all their students.

For schools that did not have a class ranking, though, the university would estimate the numbers itself. To take last year as an example — when only 38 percent of George Washington’s incoming class had official class rankings — the school had estimated a substantial portion of its students’ class rank.

This matters for the U.S. News and World Report, which uses the high school rankings of college students to gauge schools for its annual list. Although the class ranking component accounts for approximately 6 percent of a school’s overall rank, the publishing body explicitly prohibits colleges from estimating ranks in cases when they are not provided. Thus, George Washington was flying in the face of typical standards to better its own reputation. Six percent may not be much, but tallied up over ten years it has contributed to George Washington’s annual ranking hovering near the top 50. Prestige, in turn, affects variables such as cost — with George Washington being consistently named the most expensive school in the U.S. by its sticker price according to Forbes.

After performing an internal audit of its numbers last summer, George Washington was courageous enough to admit its mistake last week. It has not spoken of any disciplinary measures, however. To follow the precedent of those other institutions — Emory University and Claremont McKenna College in this year, alone — that committed academic fraud, George Washington should continue its investigation and remove those persons responsible.

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