Con Artist U

As you may know, my wife writes for television. Her show is The Handmaid’s Tale, which means no joking at home, ever. (Welcome to my alternative outlet…) As she figures the fault lines of America’s dystopian future (some would say present), she’s also navigating a major divide in her own industry. In April, her union – the Writers’ Guild of America – instructed working TV writers to fire their agents because the major agencies had refused to agree to a new code of conduct.

Tinseltown arrived at this dust-up because, over the years, agents managed to finagle a direct financial interest in nearly all TV shows – an interest that incentivizes them to minimize production expenses such as writers’ salaries, and therefore presents a clear conflict of interest to agent-fiduciaries. (The Writers’ Guild’s code of conduct simply asks agents to act always in the interest of their writer clients.)

Since the mass firing, agencies have engaged in dirty tricks like hiring non-union writers to pose as WGA writers and sow dissent on social media. They’ve also offered a special program for young writers, and a token contribution to a fund for diverse writers. But agents’ divide-and-conquer strategy hasn’t worked so far. As one writer commented recently on Facebook: “I doubt many of us will be fooled. After all, our job is to imagine what villains will say.”

Earlier this month, Richard Vedder asked himself what villains say and found that the answer is increasingly what he hears from America’s colleges and universities. In his Forbes article, Are Universities Increasingly Liars And Con Artists, Vedder – the cantankerous emeritus professor of economics at Ohio University, and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity – takes on what he sees as a growing culture of deception in American higher education. Vedder’s prosecution of our sector’s moral compass doesn’t rely on Varsity Blues, but rather on these exhibits:

While excoriating accreditors for doing nothing, Vedder’s case goes further, attacking the “morally untenable” marketing and enrollment practices that imply enrolling in college is a “relatively risk-free path to a prosperous life, which it is not. Do the colleges tell you up front what their dropout rate is, or point out a large percent of freshmen don’t make it into the sophomore year? Do they point out that a significant portion of their graduates is underemployed?” Vedder points to nearby Bowling Green State University:

Does that school warn students that nearly half (46%) of those entering full time do not graduate in six years? Do they tell them that a large majority of students take out loans, averaging $26,000, but that nearly half of the borrowers have not paid a penny back on that debt within three years of graduation? Do they tell them that the median annual earnings 10 years after leaving Bowling Green of those getting federal assistance is barely $40,000, only slightly more than the median earnings of male workers over 25 years old with high school diplomas?

Beyond these sins of omission, Vedder neglects to mention the sins of commission that occur when financial aid award letters go out. Financial aid letters, New America Foundation reported last year,

According to New America’s Director of Education, Kevin Carey, college financial aid award letters “appear to be deliberately deceptive.”

Last month, UT Arlington’s George Siemens tweeted: “I no longer think that there is a huge difference between for-profit and public higher education. Sit in enough faculty meetings, meet with enough leadership, and it becomes clear it's all about money. The difference between for-profit and public is mainly about appearances.” For Siemens, the watershed moment was 2008. The Great Recession and resulting decline in state funding transformed public higher education into a private good, students into customers, and colleges and universities into commercial suppliers.

There are many reasons employees lie and cheat. Financial incentives are one, and have sucked all the air out of the room to date on matters ethical as a result of the efforts of progressive critics of for-profit higher education. But over 90% of students attend public and non-profit institutions. And employees are often motivated by other pressures, namely status (the approbation of their colleagues and managers) and – more important than monetary gain if you believe Tversky and Kahneman – loss aversion.

The problem for progressives and everyone who cares about higher education is that these pressures are at play in traditional higher education like never before. In 2018, after accounting for inflation, public universities collected 43% more tuition per student than they did in 2008. But as student outcomes are more likely down than up 43% in the past decade, pressures are exponentially higher on marketing and admissions personnel to meet enrollment goals, as well as on faculty who can’t avoid the headlines and recognize that enrollment shortfalls equal job insecurity.

It’s increasingly implausible to deny that such pressures are producing dirty tricks across the spectrum of higher education. Jeff Young’s EdSurge report on Siemens’ comment included a response from Maria Andersen, former community college faculty, arguing that the reason traditional universities aren’t like for-profits is that “90 percent of the curriculum and pedagogy decisions are owned by faculty, and what that means is that the institution as a whole cannot make quick moves… When you have 100 people wanting to steer the ship in different directions, it doesn’t make for a quick move when there’s something that needs to happen.” Andersen’s argument sounds awfully similar to our President’s defense against collusion with the Russians: we’re neither organized nor competent enough to do anything really bad. But that’s not what these pressures require. As Hannah Arendt demonstrated, pernicious evil is most often found in banal choices to advance one’s career or avert loss (i.e., loss of face, loss of relationship, loss of job).

The sad bloom of liars and con artists that has attracted the attention of Vedder, Siemens, and an increasing percentage of the American public, isn’t anomalous, but rather systemic – what happens when high pressure marketing and “yield management” practices meet deteriorating student outcomes and enrollment.


Last week, a friend and faculty member at one of the schools implicated in Varsity Blues – who hadn’t read Vedder or Siemens – told me he's had a prise de conscience, wondering whether the entire enterprise might be a scam. There’s a fine line between selling hope or a dream, and selling snake oil, and in his view, many traditional institutions have already crossed it.

Like Vedder and Siemens, boards of trustees intent on preserving the reputation of their institutions should be very concerned about lying and cheating in order to boost rankings, or meet enrollment or budget goals, or please a manager, or increase job security by breaking academic standards to progress students. When the Writers’ Guild had similar concerns about their agents, they drafted a code of conduct. The good news for colleges and universities is that such codes of conduct already exit: their missions that commit them to always acting in the best interests of students.

So as enrollment headwinds strengthen, boards should mandate new training programs for all employees with a focus on applying the school’s mission to moments of truth in the student lifecycle – both direct and indirect (such as reporting data). In addition, boards should add resources to the internal audit function and ensure that unit’s authority spans every student-facing function. If they don’t, as it become ever clearer that for-profit colleges no longer have a monopoly on villainy, the regulatory apparatus of the U.S. Department of Education will be forced to police all Title IV-eligible institutions, ensuring colleges and universities actually follow their missions and act as heroes rather than villains.