The report on Bowdoin College issued by the National Association of Scholars is garnering plenty of publicity, and rightly so. No one can fairly dismiss this thorough critique of politicization and declining standards at a prestigious American college as anecdotal. At 360 pages, authors Peter Wood and Michael Toscano cover far more ground than any single news account or opinion piece can convey. One finding that deserves more attention is evidence that, intentionally or not, Bowdoin may be gaming the influential US News and World Report ranking system.
As part of Bowdoin’s turn against standards in the late sixties, the school abolished the requirement that applicants submit SAT scores or equivalent test results. Somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of prospective students generally decline to provide scores. Yet Wood and Toscano have located a recently published study that had access to the scores of every student admitted to Bowdoin’s class of 1999 (Howard Wainer’s Uneducated Guesses).
Unsurprisingly, most students who declined to submit their SAT results had lower scores than those who revealed them. The non-submitting students had scores about 122 points below the rest, and those students performed less well academically in their first year at Bowdoin as well.
The result is that Bowdoin’s official account of the mean SAT scores of its enrollees omits scores from 15-30 percent of all students, which makes Bowdoin seem significantly more “selective” than it actually is.
According to Wood and Toscano, Bowdoin is listed as more selective than Bryn Mawr, Claremont McKenna, Hamilton, Macalester, Reed, and Vassar on the US News scale. But when Bowdoin’s mean SAT scores are corrected on the model of the study of its class of 1999, Bowdoin would at least appear to drop below all of these schools on this particular measure of selectivity.
While the practice of allowing students to withhold test scores almost surely began without reference to college rankings, it’s hard to believe that at this point Bowdoin doesn’t understand the artificial advantage it derives from this system. And according to the study cited by Wood and Toscano, others schools may be inflating their national rankings by resort to the same practice.
Rather than rushing to judgment, we should look to Bowdoin for a reply. Yet Wood and Toscano have raised a significant question about Bowdoin’s selectivity, and thus about its ranking with US News. It’s notable that the authors omitted this potentially damaging story from the summary of their findings. That indicates restraint on their part. Yet this is an important finding and deserves a response from Bowdoin. If it holds up, US News may need to correct accordingly, for Bowdoin and perhaps for other schools as well.