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Beware of phony college acceptance rates

(MoneyWatch) When families are researching selective colleges, one of the statistics that they look at is a school's acceptance rate. Parents and teenagers often assume that a college or university that rejects the majority of its applicants must be superior to those that welcome most interested students. What families don't realize, however, is that some of these admission numbers can be highly misleading, or even false.

A recent example of this reality comes from Washington and Lee University, a highly selective school in Lexington, Va. The school is the latest in a string of colleges and universities that have been caught submitting questionable admission statistics to U.S. News & World Report, which made those institutions appear more selective than they really were.

During the last admission season, Washington and Lee reported that 5,972 students applied for admission and only 19 percent were accepted. After obtaining internal records from the school, however, the Washington Post showed that more than 1,100 applications -- about one out of every six -- were never completed. The students failed to submit such things as standardized test scores, teacher recommendations, transcripts or other admission requirements. 

If Washington and Lee had not counted the incomplete applications, the school's acceptance rate would have increased to 24 percent, making it seem considerably easier for students to get in.

Of course, this isn't the first school that has jiggered the numbers to generate a low acceptance rate. Two years ago, a U.S. Naval Academy professor obtained damning admission data for the military academy by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. It was discovered that the school was reporting an admission rate of 7.5 percent even though two-thirds of the applications were never completed.

No one knows how many schools are fudging their figures, but here is one of the discouraging aspects of this practice: Schools that do so apparently aren't breaking any rules. This calls into question the admission statistics of all schools. 

A report in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year suggested that massaging admission figures is common. "For better or worse, the admissions industry generally operates on an honor system that governs the flow of 'self-reported' data submitted to the federal government, accreditors, bond-rating agencies, and publications such as U.S. News & World Report."

Manipulating admission statistics is enough of a concern that the National Association for College Admission Counseling this month announced new requirements for schools when reporting their statistics. Schools must implement a process to validate all institutional data, although how they are supposed to do this was left unsaid.