Baylor: A Mulligan For New Students

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Competition between colleges is as tough as it ever was and will definitely get tougher. But this seems ridiculous. My friends at Ethics Newsline brought to my attention that turns out that Baylor University has been paying students who are already admitted and attending the school — to retake the SAT. Just sitting for the exam can win $300 textbook credit and raising your score by 50 points wins you $1,000 in scholarship money. Considering that SAT scores can easily vary by 50 points from sitting to sitting, this is a good bet for any incoming student.

Why would Baylor want its already-admitted kids to retake the SAT? Easy: The SAT is a major part of the US News & World Report’s college ranking system. Baylor’s got a strategic plan called Baylor 2012 that evidently includes a cornerstone goal that it will do better on the US News rankings. They’re on their way, according to The Lariat, the student newspaper. Baylor’s average score SAT went from 1,200 to 1,210.

Baylor’s vice president for marketing, John Barry, first told The New York Times that there’s no problem because any other college could have done it too: “Every university wants to have great SAT scores. Every university wants to be perceived as having a high-quality class. We all wanted that. Were we happy our SAT scores went up? Yes. Did our students earn their scores? Yes they did.”

Some critics of standardized testing in general are pouncing on this because they say it reveals how evil they are. I don’t see it that way. The SAT is just a tool. So are the US News rankings. Baylor was misusing one tool to game the other – that doesn’t make the tools wrong, it makes Baylor wrong. Indeed, according to the influential Inside Higher Ed, Robert Morse (the US News “ranking czar”) made clear that the magazine “disapproves of any educational policy designed solely to manipulate the ranking.”

This episode shows how careful leaders have to be when they set goals — because staff throughout the organization might think that reaching the goal is the most important thing, not how you get there. In some areas, that can work. Schools? Not so much.

This is also a great example of gaming a system without breaking the rules. In other words, it’s a great example of the difference between what’s legal and what’s right.

While Baylor’s Barry at first said the university was “very happy with the way [the program] turned out,” they must not have been too happy about being caught. They’ve promised to cut the program, saying it was a “goof.”

The story first broke in Baylor’s student paper, The Lariat. It didn’t die with that one piece, either. In a recent editorial, The Lariat points out that:

Ultimately, the decision about SAT scores is really just a symptom of a larger problem. As Baylor progresses towards its 2012 goal, it’s seems more and more intent on fulfilling as many of the imperatives [in the strategic plan] as possible. There is a serious problem with this mentality, though. We seem so anxious to reach these goals that we aren’t considering whether we’re actually improving as a university. In this case, we’re trying to improve the appearance of our student’s scores without actually attracting higher-scoring students.

Many business schools now make ethics courses a central requirement to get that MBA, in an effort to improve things. According to Fox News religion correspondent, Lauren Green:

In the wake of the Enron collapse there’s been a bumper crop of ethics courses added to the business curriculum. The nation’s number one business school, Harvard began its much heralded and mandatory Leadership and Corporate Accountability course five years ago. . . . And Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School was established last year . . . for the express purpose of turning out business school graduates who’ll work to the corporate culture of greed to a culture favoring more socially responsible leadership.

But this assumes the problem is that people somehow need more knowledge in order to make ethical decisions. No: they need a moral compass coupled with some backbone. The Lariat’s insightful analysis shows it doesn’t take smarts and a degree to make the right decisions — it takes guts.

Someone, somewhere along the line, should have been able to stand up and say, “Um, boss? This SAT plan is wrong.” Maybe a memo to that effect will come to light, which would restore my faith in humanity.

Meanwhile, seemingly the last line of defense for Baylor’s reputation, the student editors of the paper hold out hope that should also be coming from the halls of the administrative offices: “With any luck, the damage done is not irreversible, and we can reaffirm our university as fair and ethical.”

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