WASHINGTON - George Washington University on Wednesday lost its U.S. News & World Report ranking as one of the top national universities because the school revealed it had erroneously reported data on incoming students for more than a decade.
The private university held the coveted 51st ranking on the "Best Colleges" listing of the top 200 national universities. But U.S. News said the use of incorrect data in the September publication made the school's rank higher than it would have been.
U.S. News said the school will have an "unranked" status until the publication of its 2014 edition of "Best Colleges" and until the school confirms the accuracy of its data.
For the 2011 entering class, the university revealed last week that it had inadvertently overstated the number of students listed in the top 10 percent of their high school classes by 20 percentage points. President Steven Knapp told the university community that officials reported 78 percent of students had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The correct number was 58 percent.
The school discovered the erroneous reporting after a reorganization of admissions management. Officials said the admissions office was using a flawed method to determine the class rank of incoming students at a time when fewer high schools are using such class ranks. The university enlisted the auditing firm Baker Tilly Beers & Cutler to review its enrollment data.
Senior Vice Provost Forrest Maltzman posted an explanation online Nov. 8, saying there was no indication the numbers were skewed intentionally. A university spokeswoman said Wednesday that officials still do not believe there was any malicious effort to distort the data.
Responsibility for data reporting has since been removed from the admissions office.
Academic credentials of incoming students are one of the variables used by U.S. News and other publications to rank schools.
In a statement Wednesday, Knapp said the school is committed to maintaining the integrity of its data but had not expected to lose its ranking.
"We were surprised by the decision of U.S. News to remove George Washington's numerical ranking rather than to correct it in light of our disclosure," he said. "We regret the error and have put safeguards in place to prevent such errors from occurring in the future."
U.S. News Director of Data Research Bob Morse wrote online that George Washington University erroneously reported the high school class standings of incoming students for more than a decade. He said U.S. News handles misreporting of data on a "case-by-case basis" and that it had not changed any other school's ranking in the current cycle.
There have been disclosures earlier this year of incorrect data from Emory University in Georgia and Claremont McKenna College in California, but they were not yanked from the rankings.
In August, Emory acknowledged officials had intentionally misreported student data as far back as 2000, but it retained its No. 20 ranking after certifying the accuracy of its most recent data.
Claremont McKenna maintained its No. 9 ranking after acknowledging a senior administrator had falsified college entrance exam scores for years. Editors at U.S. News determined the corrected data would not affect its ranking.
Morse previously told The Washington Post the mistake would likely result in only a "slight change" in George Washington University's ranking before the more dramatic step of removing the school was announced. Morse declined to explain the change Wednesday beyond a blog post online.
Universities have become increasingly focused on moving up the rankings. Millions of dollars are devoted to managing colleges' images to help "make rank," said Lloyd Thacker, director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group focused on improving the college admissions process.
"The rankings have been around for 30 years. No data that I've seen shows that education is better off because of the rankings," Thacker said, adding that he's not surprised schools are being caught manipulating numbers under competitive pressure. "This just underscores the notion that there's a degree of arbitrariness that certainly does not justify the status and importance that is given to the rankings."
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