Let’s be clear about one thing: the recent uproar about Claremont McKenna College’s fabricated SAT scores is no reflection on the quality of its students or its academic experience. CMC provides a phenomenal education that should continue to be sought after by the best students in the country. I’ve taken four classes there, and they were four of the best classes I’ve taken in college. CMC professors are outstanding scholars who take the liberal arts seriously, and they hold students to high standards. CMC students generally rise to the challenge, and they are often the most involved members of a typical 5C class (though they are sometimes maddeningly type-A). And CMC takes integrity seriously: it has one of the strictest academic honesty policies in the nation.
This, of course, makes it all the more disconcerting that the school has reported false SAT scores since 2005. I refer to these numbers as “false” and “fabricated”—though the major news articles seem to prefer “exaggerated” and “inflated”—because I think the semantic distinction is important. This wasn’t a matter of simply fudging the numbers. As Jeremy Merrill’s thorough article from the Claremont Port Side (an excellent CMC publication, it should be noted) demonstrates, individual scores were systematically manipulated and omitted in order to show “… a clear upward trajectory in both mean and median scores.” The scores the college reported for the last five years, in other words, were made up in order to contribute to this trend. They are not simply exaggerated; they are false. Why was the college so invested in this trend? For an answer, consider CMC’s coincident rise in U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings.
CMC has long been considered the most rankings-obsessed of the Claremont Colleges. This grade-grubbing reputation is largely unfair; it comes with being the “rising star” of the consortium (though that title arguably now belongs to Pitzer). But there’s also plenty of truth to it: the school pressures its professors to cap classes at 19 in the fall semesters, when data is collected for college rankings.
It’s highly optimistic to think that culpability for the fabricated scores can be confined to one senior administrator—the recently-resigned Dean of Admissions Richard Vos—and downright delusional to think that unsavory practices of this kind do not happen at other colleges. At the very least, it’s wishful thinking that assures us that competitive colleges do not feel some pressure to engage in practices like these.
This is all very depressing, of course, but why is it such big news that a small college’s reported test scores were marginally different than its actual test scores? For me, the answer lies in our national obsession with meritocracy. We entrust our institutions of learning with separating the meritorious from the unmeritorious, separating those that deserve wealth and prestige from those that don’t. When we learn that our colleges and high schools have been less than thorough or forthright in their execution of this duty, we are understandably shaken. The system only works if we can tell the best and the brightest from the others.
This is the reason you’ll see national news outlets eagerly reporting stories about cheating scandals at top-tier colleges, and it’s the reason it takes stories like these to draw attention to the ways those same colleges treat their undocumented service workers. Because we believe in the meritocracy we believe there’s a good reason these people are service workers, a good reason they are undocumented, and a good reason they are unceremoniously fired and banished from their community. But scandals like CMC’s call the premise of these assertions into question, even if they can’t ultimately shake our faith in the best and brightest and the system that rewards them.