Oops: Data Error Lands B-School Atop the Government's Priciest College List

Wondering which college is the most expensive in the country? By one measure, it’s Hult International Business School. The Department of Education’s annual college affordability lists, released Monday, name it as the school with the highest net price—what students pay after scholarships and grant aid—among four-year, nonprofit universities in the U.S. in 2011-2012.

There’s an issue with that dubious award, however: Hult had no undergraduates enrolled in the U.S. that year.

The school reported the wrong data to the government, submitting a blend of its graduate tuition and international undergraduate tuition in the section of an online form in which it was supposed list tuition for U.S. undergrads. It was the first year Hult was eligible for federal financial aid and therefore the first year it was required to submit the data. The school erred in filling out the forms, says Hult’s Director of Financial Aid Karen Van Dyne.

The misstep illustrates a downside to the government’s efforts to publicize college statistics: It’s hard to know what to make of the data. Schools can err or intentionally mislead. Emory University notoriously inflated student test scores to the Department of Education two years ago.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires the government to release more data on schools to help families compare costs, keep schools accountable, and ultimately make college more affordable. The Obama administration intends to expand the college costs lists into a rating system that would include completion rates and debt levels and could dictate how much federal aid schools get.

Critics are skeptical that the department can effectively corral the wave of information it’s demanding from schools. Higher education insiders at a February college ratings symposium said flawed data collection could doom a more sophisticated ratings system, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

The “Institutional Characteristics” survey (PDF) used to collect data from schools to compile the list is lengthy, but the instructions are straightforward. The government’s website safeguards against data errors by doing such things as flash a warning message when the system thinks an administrator has entered inconsistent data.

Hult’s ordeal shows that clerical slip-ups happen nonetheless, and mistakes can cast doubt on the list’s credibility. What’s more, Hult will probably be stuck in the top spot until the next list is released in 2015. The Department of Education declined to comment as to whether it would update or correct the list in light of the error.

The list has a further potential issue: College presidents have said that compiling lists and ratings systems end up grouping too many distinct schools together, making data deceptive. Hult, for example, is mostly a graduate school with campuses in six cities around the world and a small undergraduate program. Van Dyne says the Department of Education has good intentions by demanding transparency, but it is “trying to fit a lot of different schools into the same box.” Some argue that the lists are not useful because they shame mostly small, specialized schools, not the large universities most American students attend.

Hult’s flub may turn out to be a year-long black eye—providing ammunition for those who want to ditch the lists.

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