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PUBLIUS What Do You Do When Your College Cheats You?

CMC's President Pamela Gann meme going around

Over at Minding the Campus, Contributor Charles C. Johnson has a post examining the full effect that Claremont McKenna’s cheating on the SATs will have on its students, its faculty, and its graduates.

Claremont McKenna College, a private liberal arts school nestled in the foothills on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles County, dishonored itself and defrauded the public in a cheap effort to bolster its national rankings in U.S. News and World Report. But if that weren’t bad enough, Claremont’s deception calls into question the very worth of its students, faculty, and graduates.

Richard Vos, Claremont’s dean of admissions for 25 years, resigned in disgrace this week after admitting to systematically manipulating the college’s SAT scores since 2005. Vos evidently altered the mean, median, and range of SAT scores to boost the college’s position on the influential list of college rankings.

Only in higher education is the victim of a fraud expected to pay back his loan promptly and without complaint, and of course, to “give back” to the alumni fund. But where do we go to get back our good name?

The scheme worked. Claremont McKenna cracked U.S. News & World Report’s list of top 10 liberal arts colleges, placing ninth in 2011. But Vos escalated the fraud when he passed along the fake scores to the U.S. Department of Education and Western Association of Schools & Colleges. By so doing, Vos has jeopardized the college’s accreditation and eligibility for federal funds. The college’s bond rating may be downgraded, taking the value of a degree down with it.

The news is humbling and humiliating for Claremont students who until recently boasted on a now-defunct Facebook page, “It’s okay you haven’t heard of CMC, you wouldn’t have gotten in anyway.” How many potential students will bother to apply now that the college is mired in fraud?

What Effect on Job Prospects?

I graduated from Claremont McKenna last May with a B.A. in government and economics and about $14,000 in student loan debt after working odd jobs to put myself through school. And though I’m working, many of my classmates are still looking. How will this scandal affect their job prospects in industries like finance and government, which depend on honesty, now that the very legitimacy of their diplomas is in doubt? Will employers look askance at their college transcripts? Who could blame them if they did? I wouldn’t trust another statistic from the college after this scandal.

Yet some within the Claremont community have decided to rationalize and excuse the disgrace, blaming the “culture” of U.S. News rankings, and not the college’s administration, for promoting fraud. Like the student caught cheating who claims he should never have taken the class, this argument is as shameful as it is pathetic. The time to criticize the rankings is before, not after, you get caught trying to manipulate them.

Other colleges, such as Reed, St. John’s, and Skidmore, simply refuse to take part in the U.S. News ranking process. But Claremont’s fundraising team is only too happy to stress the latest up tick in this category or that, as if it all meant something deep. But it is nothing more than an expensive popularity contest: as with all financial bubbles, we believe we’re good because others tell us we’re good–and we shell out more money. Nobody in the administration seriously questions the content or quality of a Claremont education because we’re too busy measuring how diverse or how small a class is rather than what is taught in it.

Still others on campus claim that the fraud only increased the average scores per class by “10 to 20 points,” as if a little cheating is okay. In fact, as the Claremont Port Side, a campus magazine, reported, some students who did not report SAT scores at all had scores simply manufactured on their behalf. While 76 students did not submit results in 2009, only 48 were listed by the college in its released scores; the remaining 28 were bumped up into the higher percentiles. The SAT scores were exactly the results you would need to qualify for elite status and for up-and-coming college. Vos’s decision to keep test scores at 700, when they had, in fact, fallen to 680, was psychological as anything else. Indeed, for top performing students, a minimum of a 700 math and 700 verbal score is what is needed to be competitive at elite colleges.

Vos reported to Claremont McKenna President Pam Gann directly. It’s possible he acted without her knowledge, but it’s hard to believe Vos acted alone. Vos was many things–avuncular, if a touch bureaucratic and insincere–but he was no statistician or econometrician, much less a Machiavellian spreadsheet manipulator. He would have needed help to make those targets year-after-year.

Gann is at best complicit; and at worst, ignorant, and ignorance is no excuse, especially when you are entrusted with the reputation, the hopes, and the increasing fortunes of many families. Gann, who speaks often and laudatory of “leadership,” but real leaders take responsibility and refuse to follow others rankings. They don’t hide behind the school’s lawyers.

If everyone cheats, only the honest are suckers. That’s quite a descent from the standards the founders of Claremont Men’s College set in 1946. Back then, the college’s motto was “Civilization prospers with commerce.” Today, the college’s administration seems to think it can prosper through fraud, and that raising money raises the value of one’s degree.

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Charles C. Johnson is a writer living in Los Angeles.


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