The Most Dangerous Game: W&L Admissions Policy

The trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.

-Robert E. Lee

By Paul Lagarde and Marshall Woodward

As more and more high school students apply to college, it is only natural that college admissions should become more selective. With this increased competition among students to get into the nation’s top universities also comes an increased competition among the top universities to attract the best students. Colleges that reject more applicants than they accept look prestigious, and colleges that reject far more applicants than they accept look exclusive and elite. Such is the nature of the college admissions process today.

On September 21, 2013, the Washington Post ran an article on Washington and Lee’s admissions practices, implying that the University practice of counting incomplete applications in its total application number is misleading or even dishonest. The writer, Mr. Nick Anderson, states that for the class of 2016, Washington and Lee reported that it received 5,972 applications, but that of that number, more than 1,100 were never finished by the applicants. Still, however, these 1,100 plus were counted in the school’s totals, which were sent off to official data collecting agencies including IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) and CDS (Common Data Set). He notes that these incomplete applications were “missing required elements such as teacher recommendations or test scores, raising questions about how many of them were seriously considered for admission.” If the incomplete applications had been omitted from the official count, Anderson asserts, the university’s acceptance rate would have risen a significant five points, from nineteen to twenty-four percent.

Anderson states that Washington and Lee’s method does not appear to break rules for reporting selectivity. Some other top schools count incomplete applications in their totals as well, though many do not. A key difference between W&L and these other schools, however, centers on the sheer number of incomplete applications the school decides to count. In the Post article, Bowdoin spokesman Scott W. Hood said that the school included 49 incompletes as part of its larger total of 7,052 applications. An article by The Harvard Crimson on December 13th states that of the 4,692 early applications to Harvard, only 119 applications counted were incomplete. Meanwhile, over one-sixth of W&L’s total applications that it reported in 2012 were incomplete. It is a conscious choice on W&L’s part to include so many incomplete applications in its count, not simply a product of W&L somehow receiving far more incomplete applications than any other school in the nation. By including in its reported numbers so many applications that were never considered for admission, the school makes itself appear more selective than it actually is, skewing the numbers in a big way. Even if the goal is not to influence rankings, prospective applicants who are trying to judge the value of different schools could be misled by the artificially low acceptance rate reported by W&L.

In response to the Post article, President Ken Ruscio dispatched a team of three Washington and Lee employees to look into W&L’s admissions practices. The group consisted of Sidney Evans, vice president for student affairs; Beau Dudley ‘75, executive director of alumni affairs; and Marc Conner, associate provost. In an initial statement on the university website, Ruscio noted that he believed the school to be “acting in accordance with the applicable guidelines and in a manner consistent with how other colleges and universities approach this process.” So with the knowledge that their direct superior believed there was nothing wrong with admissions practices, the members of this ad hoc committee, in rather unsurprising fashion, found no evidence of any wrongdoing on their school’s part and released a summary of their findings on the university website. They made a few minor suggestions, none of which offered a concrete solution for the worrisomely high percentage of incomplete applications, nor did they address the question of whether counting such incomplete applications is misleading.

It also seems that though President Ruscio called for Washington and Lee to address all questions about admissions “forthrightly and transparently,” the school could have certainly responded in a more forthright and transparent manner. In 2012, revelations surfaced that Claremont McKenna had been reporting false SAT scores since 2005, according to the Claremont Portside. In response, President Pamela Gann asked Jerome Garris, Vice President of Academic Affairs Emeritus to investigate the matter. Garris discovered that Vice President and Dean of Admission Richard Vos had reported the false SAT scores. Though their own internal investigation had already yielded evidence of wrongdoing, Claremont McKenna investigated further still in an effort to discover the root of the problem. Their Board of Trustees hired O’Melveny & Myers, an outside law firm, to probe further and subsequently released the firm’s findings to the community. According its website, Emory University in May 2012 admitted to misreporting admissions data after coordinating an investigation with the Jones Day law firm “to ensure objectivity and independence.” If these two highly ranked peer institutions felt that they needed to hire an outside firm to discover the truth, why did Washington and Lee settle for an inside job?

Perhaps W&L did not feel that they needed to hire an outside firm. Or perhaps they did not want to. If an outside law firm were to look into W&L’s practices and see the exorbitantly high numbers of incomplete applicants the admissions office counts, it might be cause for concern. That concern might manifest itself as a scathing report, especially if the firm were to look at Claremont McKenna and see that that university decided to no longer count incomplete applications after its SAT admissions scandal, demonstrating that its administrators deemed the practice unethical. Furthermore, if the goal was to be forthright and transparent, it would seem that the proper course of action would be to release to the public the full, detailed report of the ad hoc committee’s findings, rather than just a short summary online.

It was assumed that the reason W&L would count applications in this manner was to improve its spot in the rankings of universities released by U.S. News, Forbes, and the like. However, W&L can also improve its credit rating by appearing more selective too, as selectivity counts for 10% of Moody’s ratings for universities. W&L is currently rated Aa2 by Moody’s, which is the third highest rating assigned. In its 2013 report, which rated W&L for a $33,775,000 bond sale which was used to finance the current dorm renovations, Moody’s specifically mentions that the school’s rating could go up if there was “further growth in student demand statistics.” A higher credit rating means a lower interest rate, and when dealing with figures in the millions, the savings from that lower interest rate could be quite significant. However, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this financial rating provided the motivation for admissions’ counting practices, and when measured against the 1.3 billion dollar endowment of the school, any savings gained would be small in comparison. It is simply worth noting, though, that an improved credit rating, or a better chance to improve it, is another consequential benefit from counting so many incomplete applications.

At its core though, this issue is not about any ranking or financial benefits that the school can gain from counting applications the way it does. Nor is it an issue of following industry guidelines. Our students pride themselves on their honor, long seen as the hallmark of this institution. Students can certainly get kicked out of W&L for misrepresenting themselves, so if the university is misrepresenting itself by overstating its number of applicants, then that deserves condemnation just the same. Though the ad hoc committee deemed there to be nothing wrong with the way W&L counted applications, the bedrock of their conclusion lies on the fact that at least some other schools count incomplete applications as well. The fact is though, that no other top tier school in the nation counts nearly as many of its incomplete applications in the final totals as W&L. This is a conscious choice on W&L’s part. In fact, W&L sends many of the students who submitted an incomplete application a letter telling them that they were never considered for admission because they did not finish applying. Yet, they are still counted in its totals. It is true that some students are admitted whose applications are incomplete, but that number pales in comparison to those are never considered at all. So while the school may possibly be within the industry guidelines, that does not mean it is doing the right thing, morally or honorably.

When caught in an embarrassing scandal, Claremont McKenna, a school with no Honor System, decided to no longer count incomplete applications when reporting its numbers. W&L had the opportunity to do the same, and possibly even lead a discussion on real forthrightness and transparency in admissions among the nation’s leading colleges.  The University missed the perfect chance to do so, perhaps distinguishing itself from other top-tier schools in a way it never intended.

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