Lessons From Claremont: What the college’s SAT scandal tells us about oversight and accountability
Over the last few years, we’ve been pleased to see our alma mater, Claremont McKenna College, shooting upward in the national college rankings. So it was shocking to learn that CMC has been falsifying the SAT scores it reports to college-ranking organizations since 2005. Claremont’s president, Pamela B. Gann, revealed the fraud in an email to the school community last week. The median reading and math SAT scores of the last eight incoming classes had been inflated by 10 to 20 points each. “A senior administrator in the Office of Admission,” she wrote, had “taken full responsibility” and “resigned his position from the College effective immediately.” As it turned out, the senior official was dean of admissions Richard Vos, a 25-year employee of the school.
According to an investigation in the Claremont Port Side, a student magazine, over 75 percent of all SAT scores reported since 2005 had been manipulated. Students promptly took to Facebook with theories about Vos’s motives. The most common was that pressure to improve the school’s ranking blinded his ethical judgment. But the speculation misses a more important question: why did such a systematic fraud go undetected for so long? There are two answers, both of which apply not just to Claremont McKenna, but to colleges across the U.S.: lack of oversight and insufficient accountability.
For too long, university admissions deans have operated as a law unto themselves. Admissions committees meet behind closed doors and make selections based on whatever criteria they deem fit. They need provide no justifications for their rejections, and at top schools, they refuse any correspondence or appeal. For privacy reasons, external auditors cannot review their decisions, while college administrators have no incentive to rock the boat.
As a result, the temptation is overwhelming to skew admissions toward one or another narrowly identified need. The football coach wants a stronger linebacker? Make it happen. A big donor’s son has an IQ below room temperature? Evaluate “the whole student.” Too few admissions from one ethnic group? Lower the requirements and let more in. Too many from another? Reject the surplus. For deans who get away with all of this, fudging a few SAT scores could seem almost trifling.