Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shame on You, Baylor!

by Daniel Bennett

The NY Times reports that Baylor University offered its freshman class a financial incentive to retake the SAT scores, claiming that it had a surplus in its merit aid budget that needed to be spent this year. Freshman students were offered a $300 bookstore credit to retake the SAT this summer, with a $1000 incentive for those who increased their score by 50 points. The total expenditures on the project are estimated at $409, 300, according to Baylor's student paper, the Lariot.

There are a number of critics lining up, suggesting that Baylor's action is an attempt to game the USNWR rankings system, of which the average SAT score accounts for 7.5% of the ranking. The core of the evidence for a motive lies in the university's strategic plan, Baylor 2012, in which it clearly indicates a desire to move into the top 50 of the rankings.

Other anectodal evidence comes from its own staff, including a vote of disapproval from the Faculty Senate and remarks from the VP for marketing and communications, John Barry, who could not fully explain the university's move, other than the university had excess money in the merit scholarship budget. The reason for this excess is made quite clear by Mr. Barry - the University failed to admit enough students with SAT scores that were above the threshold for award and it was unwilling to lower the threshold. In other words, if SAT scores are in fact a measure of the quality of an institution, then the quality at Baylor decreased this year. Its attempt to increase the admissons scores of students who were already admitted is an inappropriate use of funds, a violation of ethical conduct, and completely unfair method to award merit aid. Shame on you, Baylor.

This sort of story highlights the gaming that takes place in the battle for position in the USNWR, and other input-based rankings. This provides further support for the need to assess colleges on students outcomes, such as the Forbes-CCAP effort.

The harshest reality of this story is that it comes in the midst of the nation's economic woes in a time when the universities decry a need to raise tuition to meet the rising costs and declining public revenue stream. It is my suspicion that the war taking place among institutions to move up in the college rankings is one source of the rising costs, as schools spend foolishly in an attempt to game the system. If there really was extra money in the merit aid budget, then there surely were better ways to re-allocate this money to students, if that was the intention, or to save the money for a rainy day. Several ideas that come to mind include an across the board distribution, awarding the money to students based on their grades during the first semester, or even providing it to the best qualified students with the most unmet need.

This reminds me of the days that I spent working for a highly bureacratic government agency that would rush to spend any surplus in its budget near the end of the fiscal year, neglecting the obvious lack of need for such material and the certainty that these purchases would only incur further storage and inventory costs, with the taxpayers on the hook.

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