A Response to Forbes: The Criticism of GWU as the Site of Obama’s Debt Speech Based on Fuzzy Forbes Facts

Forbes Magazine today condemned President Barack Obama for his choice of a location for his speech on national debt: George Washington University. Staff writer David Whelan objects that the school is the most expensive college in the nation but Forbes ranks it only as the 291st best college. While I agree that tuition at this school and other schools is too high, the ranking by Forbes is absurd and is not followed, as far as I can tell, by anyone other than Forbes staff writers.

I have long been a critic of the increasing tuition rates at national universities. Having said that, most national university are now extremely expensive. While a few thousand dollars may divide schools in a straight ranking of costs, the most competitive schools are well over $30,000. Those costs are due not just to competitive markets for academic talent but also greater demands from students, who expect much more luxurious dorm rooms as well as other accommodations. Students today are given world class fitness facilities, laboratories, and entertainment. To stay competitive, universities have been expanding and building to meet the expectations of today’s students as well as faculty.

Let me be clear. I opposed the tuition hike by former President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. While Trachtenberg did some many good things for the school, he had continual tension with the faculty. He raised the tuition after the faculty turned down one of his worst ideas. He wanted to add a whole additional class to the University to basically crank out more diplomas all year around. Despite his promise to the faculty to pay us all more in exchange for the additional class, the faculty stood hard on the principle of academic excellence and refused to allow for the expansion. It would have, in my opinion, turned the school into a factory operation. Trachtenberg’s final salvo was to make the school the most expensive college in the country — a move widely criticized by the faculty. Trachtenberg has insisted that, absent the willingness of the faculty to increase the number of students, the revenue for the rising costs (due in part to a major building campaign) of the university had to come from tuition.

What I considered most out of line was the use of the Forbes ranking. It is true that U.S. News and World Report ranks GW as 51st — a ranking that rankles many at the university. This is only the ranking for the college. The individual graduate schools do much better — particularly the law school which is ranked in the top 20 and the top three in intellectual property in the nation. (The Elliot School for international affairs has been ranked 10th among undergraduate programs and seventh among graduate programs). The ranking puts the GW tuition at $41,242 tuition and fees as compared to other schools at the same ranking like Tulane at $41,884 tuition and fees. My undergraduate, University of Chicago, is ranked 9th with a tuition of $41,091 tuition and fees in the same report. Georgetown nearby is ranked 20th and lists a tuition of $40,203 tuition and fees. The point is that many of the top 50 or so schools are within a few thousand dollars of each other — something Whelan omits to mention.

The magazine also does not account for the significant level of scholarships meted out at GW.

The Forbes ranking puts a heavy weight on tuition. This is an important criteria for students. However, it is not the measure of the quality of the school. Moreover, it does not account for scholarship rates. More than 60 percent of our undergraduate students receive financial aid from GW. Moreover, GW boasts a “no surprises tuition guarantee” that ensures no tuition increase for returning undergraduate students and limiting the increase for incoming undergraduates.

With the highly skewed ranking, Forbes ends up with a ridiculous ranking of schools if you are looking purely at quality. West Point is put in the top four since tuition is zero but no one would rank the school so highly in terms of quality. (The Air Force academy comes in at 11th). The “top 25 schools” for Forbes also include Whitman College and Centre College. They are higher ranked than Middlebury, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, Bowdoin, Duke and others. Brown University is ranked 45th and Georgetown is ranked 52nd. Berkeley (65th) is ranked behind Bates College and DePauw, according to Forbes.

Whalen notes “GW is ranked down near other expensive schools like the University of Miami and Syracuse University. Forbes ranks it below solid, small, and inexpensive places to get your bachelors, like Grove City College and Fisk University.” That is the type of comparison that drives academicians to distraction. Obviously, you can get cheaper deals on education if the issue is only receiving a diploma. However, Whalen is using (as does his magazine) a cost-driven measure of excellence. Education is not so easily quantifiable and, with all due respect to those schools, no one I know would say that those schools offer the same opportunities and ranking as GWU.

What I do not understand is why consumers pay a newsstand price of $130 for 26 editions of Forbes when there are other magazines at a fraction of the cost. After all, in a ranking of the top 50 magazines, Forbes does not even make the cut. Instead, the study noted on 15th ranked Business Week that it is “consistently the best business magazine, more timely than the biweeklies Forbes and Fortune. One strength is international reporting, as in the cover story on India and outsourcing. If it is all about price, shouldn’t consumers buy Wooden Boat magazine (37th) or Martha Stewart Weddings (33rd)? Some of the top 50 magazines are a fraction of the cost of Forbes. However, I would be the first to say that the measure of quality is not the newstand price but the content of the magazine and how it is viewed by other journalists.

Then there is the fuzzy math problem of Forbes being accused of counting ghost subscribers. It would seem that circulation alone is not a reliable measure and I am sure that staff writers would insist that you cannot rank a magazine on sales as opposed to the quality of their writing — the same point as academics.

While many academics are critics of the U.S. News and World Report ranking, I am not. However, students look for a mix of opportunities and departmental offerings — as well as scholarships and standing. The report, for example, notes that GW’s college has “56.2 percent of its classes with fewer than 20 students, and the student-faculty ratio at George Washington University is 13:1.” Because of our location (two blocks from the White House), this tends to be an expensive location but also a place with a great deal of opportunities not present with other schools.

It is also important to note that the top 50 schools can be highly misleading. In a nation filled with world-class schools, the top 50 schools are a pretty competitive group. Consider the fact that 25-50 includes the following schools: Georgetown, UCLA, Virginia, Tufts, Michigan, William and Mary, Boston College, NYU, Brandeis, Texas, Wisconsin, and other schools. GWU is ranked just behind schools like Illinois and Texas. Even at state schools like Texas charge $31,218 out-of-state tuition.

I do not want this to sound defensive, because I have been critical of tuition rates. However, the use of the widely criticized Forbes ranking is telling example of fuzzy stats used to make the point driving that Whalen so desperately wants to make in the piece. The column seems to follow the old adage among some journalists that “some facts are too good to check.”

I realize that Whelan wanted a way to poke fun at Obama — even for the mere location of his remarks. However, the figures that he uses seem to suffer from the same creative bookkeeping as the various austerity plans and projections. The desired point seems to have gotten a bit far ahead of the supporting data. Forbes has been previously accused of anti-Obama articles that strained credulity.

Whalen adds: “Did President Obama see the irony of appearing at George Washington University to discuss how to cut spending? Probably not.” I would agree because anyone familiar with these schools would fail to see the irony. Indeed, Forbes often espouses market-driven analysis of problems and yet fails to see the irony in analyzing this issue without a true comparison to the other schools or the fact that many tuition rates are within ten percent of each other. These schools are in a highly specialized competitive market. They set tuition with an eye to other schools while maintaining the best possible educational “product.” All Whalen can offer is that you can get a degree from some schools at a lower price — citing the Forbes ranking of schools which is heavily weighted on tuition figures. This produces a circular logic. GWU is supposedly a bad deal because it costs too much and is ranked 291st in a ranking driven by the same tuition figure.

George Washington was a logical choice for President Obama. It is not only located virtually next to the White House, it is one of the nation’s oldest universities. The charter of this school was paid for by George Washington himself who wanted a great university founded in our Capitol. He got one. It was established after Washington’s death by congressional act and signed President James Monroe on Feb. 9, 1821 as the Columbian College in the District of Columbia. That school later became George Washington University.

I fail to see the “irony” in the honor of being selected by President Obama for this speech.

Original article: Forbes

Jonathan Turley

26 thoughts on “A Response to Forbes: The Criticism of GWU as the Site of Obama’s Debt Speech Based on Fuzzy Forbes Facts

  1. About Fox:

    In a recent talk to a group of college students, Carl Rove said “that Fox News does a good job being objective.” One audience member reportedly laughed loudly. The rest of “the crowd” of 300 must have been Rove (and Fox) supporters.

  2. Good post, prof. That Forbes article is whack. I don’t love sky-high tuition, but it’s insane to pretend that it’s isolated to GW. I’m always disturbed by how several well-known “public” law schools have out-of-state tuition exceeding GW’s. Maybe if our higher education system was restructured we wouldn’t have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars from the government in order to attend school. The government should be thanking GW for the interest on my student loans.

  3. “This kills intellectual curiousity (particularly in the social scienes) and the dissemination of truth at the academic level.”

    Lol … Taliban Tootie attempts to school us on intellectual curiousity …

  4. Stamford,

    She’s curious, she wonders how anyone could possibly be as vile, deceitful, hate filled, prejudiced, lazy, and efficient at destroying all that is good in the word as the big scarey left.

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