The Clemson Scandal Begs the Question: How Reliable are College Rankings?

Despite the protests of many colleges that rankings in publications like U.S. News & World Report are unimportant, a recent scandal illustrates that some schools can be even more grade-obsessed than their students. In the latest ranking of national public universities by U.S. News & World Report, Clemson University, a public university in South Carolina, obtained the position of 22, up from a respectable 38th place in 2001. Clemson has taken a very active role in working to move up in the rankings, such as increasing the number of small classes and raising the salaries of the faculty.

However, Clemson has allegedly used some problematic (and ethically questionable) tactics to help increase its rank. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed describes a presentation by Catherine Watt, in which Watt told the attendees a number of troubling approaches Clemson has taken in order to crack the elusive top 20.

[M]any of the administrators and data analysts in the audience were clearly troubled by Watt’s description of Clemson’s approach, especially as she pointed out that the university has grown more exclusive (fewer than 10 percent of its undergraduates are first-generation college students) and has “favored merit over access in a poor state,” sending tuitions rising. “To me it’s a little unsettling what you’re doing,” said one audience member. “You had a perfectly good institution” before.

“We have been criticized for not fulfilling the mission of a public land-grant institution,” Watt responded. But “we have gotten really good press. We have walked the fine line between illegal, unethical, and really interesting.”

An even more disconcerting revelation by Ms. Watt was that Clemson’s president James F. Barker had ranked other universities’ programs as inferior to Clemson when completing the reputation survey form for college presidents. On the five-point scale, Barker gave Clemson a four, designating it as a “strong” institution, and did not give any of the survey’s other 259 universities, both public and private, a four or a five. Although some Clemson University officials have taken umbrage with Ms. Watt’s insinuations of ethically questionable conduct on the part of the university, the school has not been able to straightforwardly refute the allegations. Furthermore, Barker remains unapologetic about his ranking decisions, stating that, when it comes to the undergraduate experience, he believes “Clemson does that better than anyone.”

The situation illustrates the pitfalls of relying on “official” rankings and reputations alone when making decisions regarding colleges. When considering colleges, it is important to not be too concerned with the rank or perceived prestige. Instead, students (and parents) need to assess whether a particular college fits their academic and social needs and will be a good match for them in the long run. By making your own evaluations and decisions, you can be confident that you are attending the college that is right for you based on your own terms, not on some potentially spurious data.

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