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The U.S. News College Rankings Just Failed PR 101

U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges From Lance Armstrong to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, 2013 is turning out to be the year of holding cheaters accountable. Today we’re glad to welcome a few newbies to the group: U.S. News & World Report and the five (or more) colleges that “misreported” admissions data for the publication’s inexplicably revered college rankings.

Industry professionals know that dishonesty is the most direct route to bad PR. People don’t like being lied to by other people even if they are oddball strangers on the subway, so the public certainly doesn’t appreciate being lied to by companies, personalities, brands and universities that they support with their hard-earned money–especially those touted as “experts” in their given fields.

With rising tuition costs and a dwindling ability to guarantee graduates employment, colleges and universities are fighting more vehemently than ever to retain the elevated status they have enjoyed in our culture over the centuries. So we were disheartened to read the Washington Post article that included this comment regarding the matter from Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education: “In any highly competitive environment, there is always a temptation to cut corners.”

You don’t say…

Cutting corners is what you do when you don’t want to mow the grass around your mother’s azalea bush. What Mr. Hartle is referring to is called cheating–you know, that thing you didn’t do during your academic career because it’s so bad you would have been kicked out of school. Oh, and because it’s wrong.

A crucial part of American mythology involves visions of a land where no one cheats. When we talk about opportunity, we mean a place where our dreams aren’t thwarted by corruption. We, the people, know this (even if we never made it past the eighth grade).

The public knows that institutions of higher education do wonderful things and often turn ordinary people into extraordinary citizens. But the public won’t tolerate being played for a fool, which is why the PR fallout from this debacle will have dire consequences for the implicated schools and for U.S. News, which apparently doesn’t actually “report” but rather passes on unsubstantiated information to the public in the form of official college rankings.

Now that is cutting corners.

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