12/31/2013 02:53 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

Grad Inflation

With the announcement of early action and early decision acceptances earlier this month, any high school senior with high academic aspirations can tell you that the American college admissions process, at least for more selective institutions, has become extremely competitive. In recent years, the schools with the most demanding admissions criteria have overall acceptance rates of less than 10 percent of applicants with some schools dipping as low as six to eight percent, the lowest values in my recollection. It should not surprise anyone familiar with situations in which demand greatly exceeds supply that morally questionable actions might increase in frequency in such circumstances.

Thus, in the past couple of years it was revealed that some prestigious universities and colleges reported inaccurate data, such as average SAT scores or high school class rank, for the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. For example, one school provided financial incentives to admitted students to retake the SAT in the hope that higher scores might be obtained. Such ethically questionable behavior has, as might have been expected, now reached the domain of the college preparatory school.

While I cannot assess how widespread this phenomenon might be, I think it is plausible that there are instances other than the one I describe below in some detail. The value in thoroughly dissecting this particular bit of ethically questionable marketing is that it reveals how alert students and parents must be to avoid being deceived.

Inserted in my copy of a Sunday newspaper this past June was a glossy four-page color insert from a local high school we can call CPS. CPS is a private and co-educational college preparatory school in the suburbs of Cleveland. In the late spring, I had been hearing numerous radio ads touting the advantages conferred on graduates of CPS for gaining admission to the most desirable undergraduate institutions. The key feature of the brochure for my present purposes is a table on the second page purporting to quantify what is referred to as "The CPS Advantage" in admissions to the most selective colleges and universities in the nation.

The table contained four columns, the leftmost of which was labeled "The Top 10 National Universities and Top 10 Liberal Arts Colleges According to U.S. News & World Report." This column listed the names of nine national universities and 13 liberal arts colleges with the lowest overall acceptance rates. Presumably, there were 13 instead of 10 colleges listed in part because there were two pairs of schools with identical admit rates (although that fact alone should only yield 12 institutions). I have no insight as to why there are only nine, instead of 10, highly selective universities listed.

The next column to the right ("U.S. News Class of 2012 Admit Rate") listed the overall acceptance rates for 2012 for these schools expressed as percentages. One column further to the right was a list of the average acceptance rates for these same institutions for CPS students in the years 2003-2012. The rightmost column was labeled "The CPS Advantage" and contained numbers expressed as percentages corresponding to each university or college. I have inferred that the values corresponding to each institution-specific CPS Advantage were derived as follows:

For a given university or college, the overall acceptance rate was subtracted from the CPS-specific acceptance rate and then the remainder was divided by the overall acceptance rate for that institution and multiplied by 100. So, by way of example, the most selective institution had a 2012 admit rate of 6.3 percent. The corresponding CPS admission rate, averaged for the years 2003 to 2012, was 17.2 percent. Therefore, the CPS Advantage was [(17.2-6.3)/6.3] x 100 = 174 percent (actually 173 percent, but I guess they rounded up). In the brochure, I did not find a detailed explanation of how the CPS Advantage values were derived.

An obvious problem with the calculation of the CPS Advantage percentages is that the general acceptance rates cited for the various colleges were only for 2012, while the acceptance rates for CPS students were averaged over 10 years due to the otherwise small and varying numbers of CPS applicants to any given institution in any given year. While it is arguably fair to average the CPS student admit rates over 10 years due to the small and fluctuating numbers of applicants to any given college or university, it is not fair to use only the most recent (i.e., 2012) overall admit rates for comparison.

As must be well-known to the CPS college counselors, for the relevant undergraduate schools there has been a strong trend for the admit rates to decline with each passing year. For example according to the web site for Hernandez College Consulting the average admit rates for the eight Ivy League colleges plus Stanford and MIT have been as follows for the classes of 2012 (admitted in 2008) to 2016 (admitted in 2012): 12.42 percent, 11.50 percent, 10.59 percent, 9.62percent and 9.22 percent.

By using only the most recent available values for general acceptance rates the calculations likely inflate the values of the "CPS Advantage." The overall admit rates averaged over the period 2003-2012 at the various colleges should have been used.

There are additional factors that arguably should have been accounted for in determining any CPS-specific college admissions advantage:

- Percentage of parents who are alumni of undergraduate institutions to which
students are submitting applications

- Percentage of parents making financial donations, especially large donations, to
colleges or universities that are receiving applications from their children

- Percentage of CPS students who use independent programs or consultants to enhance
their college admission prospects.

However, there is no indication that these three factors were considered in calculating the CPS Advantage, and at least the first two of the above factors are documented to increase the likelihood of acceptance at highly selective universities or colleges. If, as is plausible, CPS students are more likely on average than applicants in the general applicant pool to benefit from these factors, a portion of the apparently higher acceptance rates for CPS students would result from causes that cannot legitimately be ascribed to the quality of the education and counseling support delivered by CPS faculty and staff.

In summary, the values for the CPS Advantage likely overstate the benefits, even if they are real and meaningful (as attested to by some CPS parents), that can legitimately be attributed to attending CPS. It is disappointing that such potentially misleading marketing is being used, and it would be more disappointing if it is representative of the college preparation marketplace. The trend of competition-fueled exaggeration or deception, much of it directly related to the rankings of U.S. News & World Report, extends beyond undergraduate institutions to graduate and professional schools and now apparently college preparatory schools. It seems fair to ask if these rankings are ultimately responsible for more harm than benefit.