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Professsor says academy overstates applicants

Dec. 10, 2011 - 08:58AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2011 - 08:58AM  |  
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Plebes learn to center their covers on Induction Day at the Naval Academy. The academy is being criticized for counting as "applicants" people who began applications but never completed them.
Plebes learn to center their covers on Induction Day at the Naval Academy. The academy is being criticized for counting as "applicants" people who began applications but never completed them. (MCSN Danian Douglas / Navy)
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The Naval Academy is artificially inflating its number of applicants to boost its status among other colleges, according to an academy professor who based his accusations on the school's own documents.

Specifically, the academy counts as "applicants" people who have not completed an application but have shown an interest through other means, such as applying to the school's weeklong Summer Seminar or beginning an online application, the documents show.

An academy admissions official Dec. 5 used this standard to boast that the school had 18,651 applicants so far this year, saying it put the school on track for a record year for the Class of 2016.

The academy's number of completed applications is much lower. For example, the Class of 2015, which began training during the summer, had 5,720 completed applications; the academy cited its applicant number as 19,145 — more than three times the number of completed applications.

Using the higher numbers puts the academy at odds with other schools, which typically use only completed applications to show their acceptance rate. It's not enough, a spokesman from another college maintained, to merely start an application.

An official with U.S. News & World Report, which ranks colleges annually, said it's "very atypical" for schools to use such a benchmark.

Bruce Fleming, an academy English professor and frequent critic of the school's admissions process, filed a Freedom of Information Act request on how the academy counts applicants and provided the results to Navy Times.

"The Naval Academy needs to come clean with the taxpayers who support it about its admission process," Fleming said. "We want the credit that comes from being selective, but we don't want to play by the rules that other colleges use."

Fleming — who also filed a whistle-blower complaint against the school that was settled in January — called on the academy to "cut the hype."

The documents Fleming received from the academy show that the school's total number of applicants includes every high schooler who applied to participate in Summer Seminar, regardless of whether the prospective student later completed an official academy application. It also includes high school juniors and seniors who initiated an application online, according to the documents.

An academy official said the practice of counting applicants this way has been in effect for at least 20 years.

The difference in the numbers is significant. By including Summer Seminar applicants — the event has about 2,250 participants a year — and people who never finished their online applications, the academy cited a 7.4 percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2015. That matches last year's undergraduate acceptance rate at Princeton University. If those who didn't complete an application are not included, the acceptance rate is closer to 25 percent.

The academy, in a statement, defended its practice of counting all Summer Seminar applicants and those who don't complete applications, saying this was consistent with the accepted definition of an applicant. The statement also said the school is considering a "clarification" to the documents provided to Fleming.

"Like other universities, USNA considers an individual to be an applicant when they have completed enough of the admissions process for USNA to take ‘actionable steps' as defined by the Common Data Set," academy officials said in the statement, referring to the industry standard for higher education statistics. "All Naval Academy Summer Seminar applicants are advised that their application to Summer Seminar is additionally considered as an official application for admission to the Naval Academy."

Two academy spokesmen declined to explain how much of the application must be completed to be considered, or clarify their response in documents that the academy counts all juniors and seniors who "initiate" an application. Also left unanswered is why the institution chooses to interpret standard admissions statistics this way or whether it has disclosed this fact to the publications that use the standard data.

When asked how this might affect the academy's ranking in U.S. News, a representative of the magazine said "the school needs to contact us."

One member of the academy's supervisory board said he was puzzled as to why the academy would count applicants this way.

"I don't know why their system would be different," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who added that he considers the academy's admissions practices exemplary, but that the issue merits examination. "I think there always needs to be transparency, and that's why I'm sure the board will take a look at this."

What makes an applicant?

The Common Data Set Initiative is an industry standard for higher education that allows institutions to be fairly compared with each other.

"Applicants should include only those students who fulfilled the requirements for consideration for admission, i.e. who completed actionable applications, and who have been notified of one of the following actions: admission, non-admission, placement on waiting list or application withdrawn," according to the definition of a freshman applicant in the Common Data Set.

Asked in the FOIA request whether the 19,145 applicants Annapolis reported last year met the CDS definition, the academy replied: "No, there is no mandate to apply the definition of the common data set to the U.S. Naval Academy's admissions process. Of note, the requirements for admission to the service academies are different than other colleges and universities."

The official response, which was dated Nov. 22 and signed by academy FOIA official Pamela Nye, doesn't elaborate on why the academy takes exception to the standard.

But the statement provided to Navy Times on Dec. 9 said the academy meets the CDS standard but did not explain how an incomplete application can count. It also said a Summer Seminar application meets the requirement for an official application, although the official application is far more rigorous.

For example, the Summer Seminar application requires personal data, academic interests, highest standardized test scores, a list of high school grades and activities, a description of any medical conditions, and whether the applicant has been contacted by an academy coach. In contrast to undergraduate admissions, the Summer Seminar application does not require a fitness test, an interview, a full medical screening, copies of standardized test scores and high school transcript.

"We will automatically process all Summer Seminar applicants as applicants to the Naval Academy upon completion of the Summer Seminar selection process," the academy says on its website.

To be admitted to the Naval Academy requires an applicant to jump through "dozens of hoops," such as the physical test and countless forms, which are over and above that required by other schools, according to one academy official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the school's admissions process.

Similar to Annapolis, both the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy report the total number of applicants as anyone who has started an application. However, both of these academies also provide the total "qualified" applicants — a figure that Annapolis doesn't provide. The Coast Guard Academy bases its acceptance rate on the number of qualified applicants.

Aside from the CDS, colleges and universities are required to report basic statistics of their institution, from accreditation and cost to majors offered, to the Education Department, which maintains a public database. The definition of applicant used by the department is nearly identical to the CDS.

Asked how the Education Department handles discrepancies like these, spokeswoman Sara Gast responded: "We work with schools very thoroughly to make sure the data is as accurate as possible."

‘Why are they doing that?'

The Common Data Set is used to rank colleges in the annual U.S. News rankings, a highly influential guide used by high schoolers to research schools and tracked closely by college presidents and trustees to evaluate the attractiveness of their institution.

In computing the U.S. News rankings, the acceptance rate accounts for only a small portion, 1.5 percent, of a college's ranking, said Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News. "It almost makes no meaningful difference in the ranking, unless it's way, way, way, way, way off," he said.

Morse said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of service academy admissions, but said "it's very atypical" for schools not to follow the accepted CDS definitions. CDS is a collaborative effort, and neither U.S. News nor other publishers audit college statistics. CDS does not expel institutions for misreported statistics, Morse said.

However, if the Naval Academy has been overstating the number of applicants, as Fleming maintains, Morse said it creates the impression that they are more selective than they are. "Why are they doing that?" he asked.

"I would think now that this has been exposed," he added, "the school needs to contact us."

In the 2011 U.S. News rankings, Annapolis and West Point were in a three-way tie for 14th among liberal arts colleges nationally alongside Vassar College, a private college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Yet Vassar counts only completed applications when reporting admissions statistics.

"The only applicants we count are the ones who we get a completed application from, certainly not anyone who begins an application," said Vassar spokesman Jeffrey Kosmacher. "Basically, you won't even be considered for admission if your application were incomplete."

Still, Kosmacher stopped short of blaming the academy for misreporting its statistics.

"I think the onus is on U.S. News to be sure that if they're measuring the Naval Academy against any other undergraduate institution, that the way that data like this is being gathered is consistent," Kosmacher said. "Otherwise, there's no validity to comparing one school to the other."

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