Over the course of six years Claremont McKenna College lied about its incoming students’ SAT scores, inflating them by 10-20 points. When administrators discovered the problem, the ramifications were serious. They may become even more serious. This is despite the fact that the actual deception was pretty meaningless.

As I wrote earlier in the week “the financial planning magazine Kiplinger’s has dropped Claremont McKenna College from its prominent “Best Values in Liberal Arts Colleges’ list.” U.S. News also plans to recalculate its rakings due to the Claremont deception.

But, according to Daniel de Vise, it’s not just the rankings the school needs to worry about. As he writes in the Washington Post:

This apparently went on for several years. And that presumably means inflated SAT data were sent to the Education Department, which publishes consumer-oriented college data on its College Navigator site.

Bad data must also have been included in Claremont McKenna’s periodic internal review documents, submitted to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges to support its case for academic accreditation. Accreditation is the regulatory lifeblood of a college.

As he explains:

Dropping the school from the list is about the worst penalty a ranker can inflict on a college. What about Claremont McKenna’s accreditor? What about the Department of Education? Claremont McKenna must have reported inaccurate SAT numbers to them, too. Either of those agencies could conceivably inflict real penalties— such as suspension of accreditation, or of student aid — on a school that breaks the rules.

As he points out though, it’s not clear that the SAT lies were symptomatic of any larger structural problem, or even plan of deception at the school. It appears that one admissions officer, Richard Vos, was responsible for the whole thing.

But then, what’s really so odd about all this is why Vos even bothered. A 10 or 20 point difference is, as de Vise points out “the equivalent or answering one or two more questions correctly on the test.” Why?

Well it may sound ridiculous from the outside, but a 15 point difference in SAT scores, students moving from the 94th to the 95th percentile, is very much the sort of thing on which an academic admissions officer is evaluated.

Perhaps that’s the problem. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer