Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Prestige Game


Stephen Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, has a curious column in the Washington Post.

He discusses a court case (carefully pointing out that he does not have the full details) in which a student is suing the University of Pennsylvania for misrepresenting its “Executive Masters in Technology Management.” This program is co-sponsored by the engineering department of Penn and the Wharton School of Business. The student received a diploma from Penn, but a mere “certificate of completion” from Wharton. The student expected a Wharton degree, which is considered more prestigious than a degree from Penn’s engineering department.

According to Trachtenberg, the student was “apparently quite satisfied with what he learned,” but he wanted the prestige of the Wharton name.

Trachtenberg uses this case to illustrate a broader issue, that “the brand has overcome the education” — people value a school’s prestige more than they value its education. But he doesn’t take a stand on where the fault lies — in this case, or more generally. Was the student seeking a Wharton degree on the cheap? Or had Penn misrepresented the nature of the master’s degree? My guess is both.

The message for me: People in higher-education transactions are just as self-interested as those in other transactions. The student wanted prestige; the school wanted revenues. Wharton sold its name, but held back giving a diploma because such a diploma would tarnish its prestige. As for the student being “satisfied” with his education, frankly, this is a glib remark. Education was not what he was primarily looking for.


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