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The first rule of journalism

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. . . is, don’t let yourself get bullshitted by a guy who comes right out and tells you he’s a bullshitter.

The second rule of journalism is, if you end up breaking the first rule, don’t do it in an excerpt from your forthcoming book published in the New York Times.

Kevin Carey breaks both rules in this piece, which is too bad since his book looks interesting, and I’m sympathetic to what appears to its central thesis.

The excerpt uses a profile of Stephen Trachtenberg, who was president of George Washington University from 1988-2007, to illustrate some of the dysfunctions of the contemporary American university system. Carey starts by pointing out that over the past generation schools like GW have gotten extremely expensive, and it’s to say the least unclear whether these massive price increases have led to today’s students getting a better education than their predecessors:

I talked to a half-dozen of Hugh Moren’s fellow students. A highly indebted senior who was terrified of the weak job market described George Washington, where he had invested considerable time getting and doing internships, as “the world’s most expensive trade school.” Another mentioned the abundance of rich students whose parents were giving them a fancy-sounding diploma the way they might a new car. There are serious students here, he acknowledged, but: “You can go to G.W. and essentially buy a degree.”

I went on the university’s website to look for some kind of data or study indicating how much students at George Washington were actually learning. There was none. This is not unusual, it turns out. . . Colleges may be afraid of what they would find. A recent study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, American college graduates score well below college graduates from most other industrialized countries in mathematics. In literacy (“understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text”), scores are just average. This comes on the heels of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s “Academically Adrift,” a study that found “limited or no learning” among many college students.

So where is all the extra money from massive tuition hikes and skyrocketing endowments going?

Instead of focusing on undergraduate learning, numerous colleges have been engaged in the kind of building spree I saw at George Washington. Recreation centers with world-class workout facilities and lazy rivers rise out of construction pits even as students and parents are handed staggeringly large tuition bills. Colleges compete to hire famous professors even as undergraduates wander through academic programs that often lack rigor or coherence. Campuses vie to become the next Harvard — or at least the next George Washington — while ignoring the growing cost and suspect quality of undergraduate education.

Carey uses Trachtenberg’s tenure at GW’s president as a cautionary tale:

The university was an inexpensive commuter school when Stephen Joel Trachtenberg became president in 1988. By the time he was finished, two decades later, it had been transformed into a nationally recognized research university, with expanded facilities and five new schools specializing in public health, public policy, political management, media and public affairs and professional studies.

U.S. News & World Report now ranks the university at No. 54 nationwide, just outside the “first tier.”

Trachtenberg boasts to Carey that he learned his craft at the feet of master (self) promotion artist John Silber, when Silber was Boston University’s president. From Silber, he learned how to get rich people to give money to a formerly under-endowed university, sitting in the shadows of a more prestigious neighbor, with Georgetown playing the role of Harvard in this parallel narrative:

The George Washington University came with some assets, most importantly a prime location just a few blocks from the White House, but it had little money and suffered from an inferiority complex. “I was given an institution and told, ‘Make this place better,’ ” Mr. Trachtenberg said, “ ‘and by the way, be embarrassed that you’re not Georgetown.’ ”

And how did he achieve this? By recognizing that college and university prestige is certainly a positional good, and in many cases an actual Veblen good:

Everyone wanted something from him: better facilities, better colleagues, better students — and all of those things cost money. He had no base of rich alumni like the Ivies or Georgetown did. Fund-raising was a chicken-and-egg problem: Rich people wanted to support something that was already excellent, but excellence as they understood it required millions of dollars to buy.

Mr. Trachtenberg, however, understood something crucial about the modern university. It had come to inhabit a market for luxury goods. People don’t buy Gucci bags merely for their beauty and functionality. They buy them because other people will know they can afford the price of purchase. The great virtue of a luxury good, from the manufacturer’s standpoint, isn’t just that people will pay extra money for the feeling associated with a name brand. It’s that the high price is, in and of itself, a crucial part of what people are buying.

Mr. Trachtenberg convinced people that George Washington was worth a lot more money by charging a lot more money. Unlike most college presidents, he was surprisingly candid about his strategy. College is like vodka, he liked to explain. Vodka is by definition a flavorless beverage. It all tastes the same. But people will spend $30 for a bottle of Absolut because of the brand. A Timex watch costs $20, a Rolex $10,000. They both tell the same time.

The Absolut Rolex plan worked. The number of applicants surged from some 6,000 to 20,000, the average SAT score of students rose by nearly 200 points, and the endowment jumped from $200 million to almost $1 billion.

Considered as a general claim about the invidious ways in which the American higher education prestige arms race works, there’s a lot to what Carey says (I’ve made much the same argument).

Considered as a specific claim about what Stephen Trachtenberg actually accomplished as George Washington’s president, however, Carey’s profile of him is pretty much completely wrong, and indeed to a significant extent a literal inversion of the truth.

First, let’s take a look at Carey’s claim that Trachtenberg took over an “inexpensive commuter school,” innocent of serious academic ambitions, and turned into a high-priced highly-ranked Ivy-wannabe.

Was George Washington an inexpensive school in 1988? Carey’s Times piece doesn’t quote any figures, but it seems he’s getting his information straight from Trachtenberg himself, perhaps via Trachtenberg’s wikipedia page (probably written by Trachtenberg, or by one of his administrative minions):

When President Trachtenberg took office in 1988, tuition at GWU was $9,570, significantly below the national median of $11,330 for all four-year colleges.[8][9] When he left office in 2007, tuition was $37,790, among the highest in the nation and significantly above the national median of $30,226.

The cite for median tuition at all four-year colleges is to a 1988 AP article, which quoted figures compiled by the College Board. But the $11,330 number quoted in the piece wasn’t the national median tuition for all four-year colleges. It was the national average for tuition and room and board at private four-year schools. This, of course, is a far higher figure than the median tuition for all four-year colleges in 1988, when annual tuition at George Washington was “only” $9,570 per year (This figure represents more than $19,000 in 2014 money, meaning that, when Trachtenberg took over in 1988, four years at this “inexpensive commuter school” cost nearly $80,000 in tuition alone in constant dollars).

What did four year colleges actually charge in 1988? Thanks to the magic of the internet, this question is readily answerable. It turns out that in 1988, average tuition at four-year public colleges was $1,529, and average tuition at four-year private colleges was $8,012. (These are average rather than median figures, but of course the median numbers are probably lower).

Nearly three-quarters of college students attend public rather than private schools, which means that in 1988 tuition at George Washington was approximately three times higher than the average tuition for all four-year colleges.

It’s true that Trachtenberg raised tuition to even greater heights: GW’s tuition was 20% higher than that at the average private four-year college when he took over, and 50% when he left. But George Washington was already a very expensive school when he became president, and the perverse pride Trachetenberg takes in supposedly having turned a cheap school into a faux-Ivy is belied by the actual numbers.

As, indeed, are his boasts about having lifted George Washington from academic obscurity and transforming into, in Carey’s words, “a nationally-recognized research university.” There actually isn’t any evidence that GW’s overall academic reputation improved while Trachtenberg was president. Prior to the beginning of the university ratings craze in the 1990s, there were very few even pseudo-empirical measures of academic reputation, so it’s difficult to say what George Washington’s overall academic reputation (to the extent this is even a meaningful concept) was prior to Trachtenberg’s presidency.

The pernicious and destestable US News rankings debuted in 1983, and for the first few years of their existence they gave numerical ranks to only the top 20 and then 25 universities. George Washington never appeared on these lists, but the school has never been anywhere close to being ranked in USN’s top 25, either before, during, or after Trachtenberg’s presidency, so its absence from USN’s rankings prior to Trachtenberg’s arrival tells us nothing about what, if anything, Trachtenberg did to enhance the school’s academic standing, even in the context of these idiotic rankings.

Only when the rankings expanded in the mid-1990s to encompass 50 and then 100 schools in numerical order did GW appear on these lists. Like the vast majority of colleges and universities, George Washington’s ranking has always been very stable. The school lurked and continues to lurk on the edge of the top 50, with practically no variation in its ranking from year to year. This suggests, of course, that what Trachtenberg did for the school’s overall reputation was exactly nothing, although his ability to convince credulous journalists that he had taken a humble inexpensive commuter school and transformed it into a high-priced academic powerhouse no doubt played a role in helping raise his salary by the time he departed to $3.7 million. (To the — very considerable — extent that a university’s endowment can be considered a proxy for its overall academic status, the history of GW’s endowment suggests strongly that the school’s status didn’t improve at all during Trachtenberg’s tenure. See below).

Speaking of money, what about Trachtenberg’s claim — or rather Carey’s uncritical repetition of his claim — that George Washington didn’t have much of it at the start of Trachtenberg’s presidency, and that by the time he left the school’s burgeoning endowment had transformed it from Georgetown’s shame-faced poor country cousin (“and, by the way, be embarrassed that you’re not Georgetown”) into a richly financed academic powerhouse?

This, again, turns out to be not merely untrue, but an inversion of the truth. When Trachtenberg arrived, George Washington was already one of the richest universities in the nation, with an endowment larger than that possessed by nearly 99% of the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Specifically, in 1987 GW’s endowment of $216.25 million placed it 46th among America’s colleges and universities, ahead of, among about 4,000 other institutions, Georgetown.

What fiscal magic did Trachtenberg work during his two decades at the helm? By the time he left, George Washington had the 64th largest endowment in the nation. In other words, the school’s endowment was actually smaller, in comparative terms (and after all, Trachtenberg’s claims regarding his supposed accomplishments are explicitly about the changes in the school’s comparative status during his tenure), at the end of his presidency than it had been when he took office.

It apparently never occured to Carey to inquire into whether a five-fold increase, in nominal terms, in a university’s endowment between 1987 and 2007 was an impressive achievement, administratively speaking. If he had, he would have discovered that, for example, Havard’s endowment increased eight times over during this same time, while Stanford’s endowment became 11 times larger, Notre Dame’s multiplied by 13, and the University of Michigan’s endowment was 25 times larger in 2007 than it had been in 1987. In other words, a five-fold increase in a university’s endowment during the years when Trachtenberg was president represents a C- performance, using the grading scale in force when he was an undergraduate, i.e., B+ at today’s Ivies, Princeton excepted.

Back in the bad old days of postmodernism and “theory,” the joke in the halls of academia was that anything you can do, I can do meta. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg might be considered academia’s king of meta-bullshit. His oft-repeated claims that he cynically and successfully exploited the Veblenesque yearnings of America’s middle and upper classes in order to make George Washington University much richer and more prestigious turns out to be just so much bullshit. But what most certainly isn’t bullshit is that he managed to exploit those claims themselves — although the prime beneficiary of those claims turned out not to be the institution that ended up paying him millions of dollars a year for his services.

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