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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 10/15/2009

Trachtenberg: When a College’s Reputation Trumps Its Quality

By Valerie Strauss

Today's guest is Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University.

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
How one values a college education is very different from how one places a monetary value on a college’s prestige, a topic that relies more on the recognition of the school’s brand than it does on the quality of its educational program (although the two are often closely entwined).

Two examples: Schools that routinely play in the NCAA’s Final Four basketball tournament receive large numbers of undergraduate applications not always correlated to the standing of their academic programs.

Name recognition goes hand-in-hand with television coverage of the sports and throughout the seasons of basketball and football, weekly on-air games enhance college’s visibility not for the talents of their professoriate but for the strength of their full backs and power forwards.

I don’t wish to disparage any particular school by saying, “for instance,” but if you line up the Top 25 Basketball Rankings from the Associated Press and place that list against any of the several well-known academic rankings (whether or not you believe in their accuracy!) you’ll see that the rosters do not necessarily align with each other.

Yes, the enhanced number of applications often times allows the college to become more selective in its admissions process, which over time, will raise the rigor of the students attending the school. And winning teams do bring vitality to a campus and they improve a president’s ability to raise money for academic purposes.

But it takes far more than an appearance in the Rose Bowl to improve the quality of the library or the recruitment of a future Noble Prize winner to the faculty.

Second tale: A news story recently reported that a student completed a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania only to discover that perhaps he didn’t get exactly what he thought he should have received.

The case is complicated and the university is appealing the court’s decision (a hefty six-figure cash award to the student), and from a single news account it is impossible to say that all the facts are at hand. Regardless, here are some interesting tidbits to reflect on.

The advertised program at the university is an “Executive Masters in Technology Management” a program “cosponsored” by the college’s engineering school and its Wharton School. From the student’s perspective, it was the Wharton name that was the object of his affection and the reason for his investment for tuition.

When the university issued him a diploma from the engineering school and a certificate of completion from Wharton, the student said “bait and switch” and went to court saying that he didn’t get his money’s worth.

The Wharton School is a ranked business program that annually places in the top five in almost all national surveys; it is a venerable institution whose single name “Wharton” is a brand ID, one well recognized and well respected in the world of higher education. But more importantly, its well-regarded reputation in the business world is akin to a five-star pedigree and a recruitment ace of spades. In all but the worst national economic downturns, the brand will get a person more job interviews than almost any other B-school education will provide.

Let’s be clear. The student did not sue the University of Pennsylvania because of the quality of his education – no, he was apparently quite satisfied with what he learned. He sued because he did not get the Wharton name in blazing lights, only in the small fine print. A certificate signed by the dean of Wharton is not the same as an embossed diploma and the student cried, “foul,” if I might reintroduce the sports theme.

So here is a case where a particular university is not pitted against another university in the rankings: Is College A better than College B, for example.

But it is one division of a school judged against another: Wharton vs. almost anything else at Penn. The student believes a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania is not the same as saying (bragging?) that he earned a masters from Wharton.

Once again, the brand has overcome the education, and the perceived value in the marketplace of the reputation of a particular program trumps the actual education.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 15, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Higher Education  | Tags:  stephen joel trachtenberg, university reputation, value of college education  
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Comments

Or even a Nobel Prize? Now THAT would be noble.

Mark

Posted by: markusr111 | October 16, 2009 3:08 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the student - first a lot of institutions seem to deliberately 'co-market' their name (like newsletters, post graduate training, etc). Second, it's not what the student thinks but what an employer thinks. A 'certificate of completion' is nowhere near a Wharton accreditation. If you want more blatant examples, take a look at the number of 'technology certification' programs out there vs. fully accredited and certified science or engineering degrees. Wharton deliberately loaned their name to this program and it's seems hard to believe an elite school might not recognize a 'bait and switch' scenario.

Posted by: southVAHmptn | October 16, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Hmmm.. does any of this have to do with a certain school up the river from GW? Lets see, there are exactly 3 schools in both the top 25 college basketball rankings and US News. Georgetown, Duke and UC Berkeley. Frankly, as far as undergrads go, the quality of students matters just as much if not more in terms of learning than the faculty. Good students equals good education. The GWs of the world can forever whine about how it is all a marketing image and not the quality of instruction that makes the elite universities but, the reality of the situation is, is that it is the students who make a university elite. Why they choose to go where they go may be a brand issue but it really doesn't matter. Maybe GW should bump up their marketing dept's budget.

Posted by: cc14850 | October 16, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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