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Bad data sinks Forbes ranking

A wrongly entered number in a government database caused Haverford’s ranking to plummet on Forbes’ list of top colleges, from seventh in 2011 to 27th this year.

A footnote on the magazine’s page profiling Haverford reads: “Correcting the error would significantly improve Haverford’s ranking.” However, Forbes has no plans to revise the list, executive editor Michael Noer told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“The rankings gaffe will hurt Haverford,” said Dean of Admissions Jess Lord. “In a sense we have lost for this year one of the tools that helps us to engage with students and families in this process.”

Although Lord believes his office now faces more of a challenge in asserting “our qualities, our name, and our reputation,” he does not think the mistake will diminish the strength of the next applicant pool. “There are too many other sources of information and factors in a student’s decision-making process,” said Lord.

Forbes added a footnote to its profile of the College, but has no plans to revise the ranking.

The Forbes list relies on data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a wing of the Department of Education that, by law, “gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participate in federal student financial aid programs,” according to the IPEDS website.

Chris Mills, Haverford’s Assistant Vice President for College Communications, said that a member of the Haverford community noticed the mistake in the spring: the number of white, female students who entered Haverford in 2004 and graduated in four years was listed as “0” instead of “108.”

Since four-year graduation rate accounts for 11.25 percent of Forbes’ ranking, the typo sent Haverford plummeting down the magazine’s list.

“I contacted a statistician with the federal government who manages the data that was used for the listing and he determined where the error was,” said Mills. “It was fixed in one database but apparently still exists in another and, unfortunately, that other database was the source for the Forbes calculation.”

The IPEDS Data Center still contains incorrect information: it lists the four- and five-year graduation rate of students who entered Haverford in 2004 as 55 and 59 percent, respectively. So while the initial error—the number of white, female graduates—has been corrected, the typo is still deflating Haverford’s numbers.

“During data collection, we do have an intensive data cleaning and quality check process intended to catch errors before the current year data collection closes,” said Allison Bell, who surveys institutions on their graduation rates for IPEDS. “Ultimately, however, what winds up in IPEDS is what institutions report.”

And so the attempts to fix the mistake continue. “I have reached out to the government statistician with whom we worked in the spring, as we’re eager to get the numbers squared away,” said Mills.

According to Bell, the final, revised data “should be released on the Data Center by the end of the year.”

Michael Noer, the editor of the Forbes list, did not respond to an interview request.

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