As she looked for potential colleges, Elisha Marquez researched school rankings in U.S. News & World Report and other publications. As a result, she found some East Coast schools that previously were not on her radar.
"It wasn't the most important factor," she said of the magazine's rankings. "But it did factor into my eventual decision of what schools to apply to," said the Eagle Rock High School senior, who is awaiting word from 14 campuses: UCs, Ivy Leagues and others.
But Marquez heard disturbing news recently. Claremont McKenna College reported that an admissions dean inflated freshman SAT scores for six years to boost its standing in U.S. News. Such cheating makes Marquez "a little more skeptical of such rankings."
Reactions like hers are spreading as the Claremont McKenna scandal revives the long-festering national debate about the rankings' reliability and influence. That poses challenges not just to U.S. News, which is the most prominent, but to Forbes, Princeton Review, Kiplinger and other popular college listings as well.
Some said it was like seeing the curtain pulled back on the Wizard of Oz to reveal a more vulnerable and questionable entity.
U.S. News describes the cheating as a rare — although not unprecedented — blip. It should not detract from its careful efforts to provide a fair and consumer-friendly tool in the otherwise confusing world of college admissions, according to Robert Morse, the magazine's director of data research.
"All schools aren't corrupt. Just a few are corrupt on a very infrequent basis," said Morse, who helps gather information from and about the 1,600 schools in its annual best colleges editions and websites.
Last fall Iona College in New York said it had for years inflated its test scores, alumni giving and other information. And the law schools at the University of Illinois and Villanova University in Pennsylvania last year reported that they had previously provided inaccurate scores on law school entrance exams and college grade-point averages of its new students.
The latest reported cheating — at Claremont McKenna — is sure to diminish the influence of U.S. News listings and bolster suspicions that other schools manipulate the self-reported statistics in the rankings formula, according to David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling. Simultaneously, many more online advice tools about college applications are being offered as alternatives to U.S. News, he said.
Last fall, a study by his group sharply criticized the U.S. News rankings and suggested that too much reliance on them could push students away from "the best college for their needs or tastes." The report urged that SAT scores be eliminated from the scaling formula and replaced with student evaluations of the schools.
Yet, the counseling group also found that a majority of its members thought that the prominence of the U.S. News rankings had increased over the last five years and that many students and parents discuss them with counselors.
At Wilson High School in Long Beach, counselor Robin Sroka posts a link to the U.S. News ranking on her counseling website, and when a new edition comes out in the fall, "people talk about it quite a bit," she said.
The list is most popular among more ambitious and affluent families looking at top-tier schools around the country but not so popular among students who expect to attend state college close to home, she said. And though it is disappointing to hear about Claremont McKenna, she said, she expects the rankings to remain popular. "People have short memories. I don't think it will suffer," she said.
About 18% of current freshmen at four-year colleges and universities across the country said the rankings in national magazines were very important in choosing a college, according to an annual survey sponsored by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. That was a significant increase from the 10.5% in 1995 when the question was first asked. However, it was well below other such other influences as a school's academic reputation, financial aid and reputation for social activities.
The rankings serve a different audience, said John H. Pryor, the institute's managing director.
"In my experience, the people who pay the most attention to magazine rankings are college presidents, boards and development officers, not parents and prospective students," he said.
U.S. News disputes that, saying that it attracts about 3 million unique visitors a month to its best colleges website and that most are students.
The publication says it is not projecting Oz-like mystery since it publicly explains the methodology. For example, SAT or ACT scores account for about 7.5% of the overall calculation that made Claremont McKenna the ninth best national liberal arts college, Morse said; other factors include a school's financial resources, graduation rates and external opinions of its academics. And although U.S. News cross-checks data against other sources, much depends on the schools' honesty, he said.
The magazine won't formally revise its recent scorings, but it will announce where Claremont McKenna would have placed with accurate scores. The SAT inflation was relatively small, and if nothing else false is found in a college internal review, Morse said, the school would have dropped just about one rung lower. Kiplinger, the finance magazine, has cut the campus from its current list of best values in liberal arts colleges, where the school had placed 18th in the nation.
Richard Vos, who had been the college's vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, recently resigned from the school in the wake of the scandal and has declined to discuss it publicly. Campus president Pamela Gann told her campus newspaper that the college was working hard to restore its credibility and that she did not think rankings were paramount in college choices.
"The primary reason that students come here is the high quality education and the academic program is a good fit for them," she said. "Rankings and guides are only part of the process."