Junk food for league tables

Perverse incentives for misreporting the data


Inside Higher Ed carries a cautionary tale about a US College Provost who misreported data to external bodies over a number of years to enhance the College’s profile:

Iona College acknowledged Tuesday that its former provost had, for nearly a decade, manipulated and misreported student-related data to government officials, accrediting bodies, bond rating agencies, and others.

“I do think there probably is a pattern” in the case at Iona and other recent incidents involving law schools at the University of Illinois and Villanova University, Clemson University’s reporting to U.S. News and World Report, and even the grade-changing scandal in the Atlanta public schools, said Jane Robbins, senior lecturer in innovation, entrepreneurship, and institutional leadership at the University of Arizona.

While making clear that she did not in any way excuse the “egregious” individual behavior on display at Iona, Robbins said the situation reflects the intense pressure and “perverse incentives” in an “intensely competitive system” in which colleges are often deemed worthy or excellent based on standardized test scores and the giving rates of their alumni.

“It’s the kind of thing that if everybody was audited, we might see a lot more of it,” said Robbins.

Iona officials sought no refuge in an “everybody does it” argument. In an interview Tuesday, Joseph E. Nyre, who became the Roman Catholic college’s president on July 1 and heard within weeks from employees at the college who suspected problems with institutionally provided data, attributed the wrongdoing there to “the actions of a person that, because we didn’t have a proper system of verification, were allowed go to undetected.”

As the table below from Inside Higher Ed shows, there were some significant differences between reported data and reality, particularly in relation to overstated SAT scores, SSRs, completion rates and alumni giving.

Could it happen in the UK? Whilst some creative reporting was feasible in the early days of league tables (I have heard of at least one institution which adopted a somewhat over-optimistic view when much of the data was self-certified), the rigorous data collection standards of HESA, Hefce, DeLHE etc make such wilful misreporting extremely difficult these days. The system though remains intensely competitive and the perverse incentives undoubtedly exist in relation to data which contribute to league table positioning.

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