Between Tamago and Potemkin

 by Michael C. Dorf

There's an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry arrives at the new house of his manager Jeff and Jeff's wife Susie, who offers Larry the house tour (NSFW: profanity). Larry declines: "No that's okay, I get it.  . . . You know, it's bedrooms, bathrooms, I get it." Susie (played by the great Susie Essman) is incensed, but of course Larry is right. If you move into a new home, you're excited about the closets, the bathroom fixtures, the bay window, etc., but to a visitor, it's all the same.

So too with college campus tours. With one daughter about to start her sophomore year of college and the other about to start her senior year in high school, I have taken more than a handful of campus tours over the last several years. They are pretty pointless. As Larry might say, "I get it. It's buildings, the library, a statue, I get it." A few college campuses are distinctly ugly, but most have some stately old buildings, a pretty quad, a quirky tradition involving a tree, a mascot, or field, and some new gym or dorm that the admissions office instructs the perky student tour guides to highlight. Choosing where to apply based on the tour seems like a bad idea relative to choosing based on hard data (like majors offered, endowment size, student/faculty ratio, student body diversity, financial aid, grad school and job placement rates, etc.) as well as personal factors (like proximity to family or strength in particular subject areas).

Yet there are so many good colleges and universities that a reasonably ambitious applicant will have already compiled a longish list that hits all of the criteria or might take a tour after being admitted to more than one of their top choices, so the campus visit can serve an important function at the margin. It is thus not irrational for prospective or admitted students to place some weight on a campus visit nor for the colleges and universities to try to sell themselves during these visits.

Accordingly, I was shocked when, on one tour at a very highly regarded institution, my daughter and I were subjected to the single worst presentation I have ever experienced from an adult professional. I'll describe it briefly and then connect it to a somewhat broader account of how various institutions and actors go about marketing themselves.

The awful presentation followed a fairly standard tour given by a student. She walked backwards, smiled, asked where people were from, and conveyed genuine enthusiasm for the school. Then we and the other three groups who had simultaneously toured the campus with other student-tour-guides convened for a talk from an associate dean of admissions. He began by saying that it was his second week on the job. That no doubt explained why he read from notes. However, the notes he chose to read consisted almost entirely of dry data that were available on the college's website. The few morsels that might not have been available on the website repeated what the student tour-guide had already told us. He spoke in generalities, periodically descending into word salad. My daughter had been on the fence about whether to apply to this college before we took the tour; after the presentation, she crossed it off her list.

Was that rash? She and I talked about that question in the car ride to our next campus tour. She assured me that if she had been otherwise enthusiastic about the school, she would have applied notwithstanding the dreadful presentation but that given the school's tenuous status on her list to begin with, it made sense to react as she did. I wasn't so sure, but: (a) I thought this school might be a poor fit for her for other reasons; and (b) it's her life. In addition, there's what I'll call the "tamago effect."

Tamago sushi is a folded egg omelette over rice, wrapped by a strip of seaweed. As a vegan, I don't eat egg, but I've only been vegan for 15 years and so I used to eat tamago sushi. Even now, if I wanted to, I could make a pretty good version of tamago using Just Egg Folded or some similar product. Anyway, I digress. I bring up tamago because I understand that in Japan, connoisseurs encountering an unknown sushi bar will order tamago. If it is high quality, they will stay and order fish sushi.

The theory is that it's difficult to make good tamago, so sushi chefs who make good tamago will also make good fish sushi, which is easier to make. That's a bit odd, right? It's more difficult to write a good cert petition than grow tomatoes. Nonetheless, it hardly follows that someone who can write a good cert petition can certainly grow tomatoes. I'm a counter-example. I can write a good cert petition, but every time I've planted tomatoes (or anything else), I grew only weeds.

Hold on. Writing cert petitions has nothing to do with growing tomatoes. The sushi connoisseurs who use tamago as a litmus test of good sushi have reason to believe that anyone possessed of the skill to make good tamago can also make good nori with fish (or for someone like me who doesn't eat fish, with avocado, sweet potato, shiitake, or some other delicious plant-based food). Right?

Well, maybe. Essential to good fish sushi is presumably fresh fish (or as I would put it, very recently murdered fishes). Having very fresh high quality fish is not a product of the sushi chef's skill. It's a matter of how much money the restaurateur spends on ingredients. So perhaps the customers make the following calculation: If a restaurant has good tamago, that means that it spent the money to hire an expert sushi chef, so it probably also spent the money to buy fresh high-quality fish.

And that makes sense, although it leaves new customers vulnerable to gaming. An unscrupulous restaurant owner might over-invest in a high-quality chef to make high-quality tamago, while under-investing in fresh high-quality fish. Call this the "potemkin effect," in which the restaurant owner creates a facade that indicates generally high-quality sushi while not in fact providing it.

Presumably market forces prevent Japanese sushi bars from pursuing a tamago-first potemkin strategy because of the value of repeat business. In a very tourist-focused locale, a restaurant might be able to make a long-term go of it by luring in customers that it then disappoints. Most customers will only eat there the one time anyway. However, even for tourists, that's a bad idea, given the likelihood of lousy Yelp reviews. Moreover, I'm guessing that the sort of Japanese customer sophisticated enough about sushi to use the tamago test is not a tourist, and thus going to restaurants that do not simply cater to tourists, i.e., restaurants that would be foolish to lure in first-time customers with great tamago only to disappoint them with the main offering.

So what about college tours? My daughter's thinking about the dreadful presentation went something like this: We can cut this particular guy some slack for not knowing anything about the school, but why didn't someone in the office vet him? Why didn't he coordinate what he would say with what the tour guides had just told the same audience? Why didn't he practice? The carelessness of the selection of the presenter might bespeak other problems.

Put differently: If the tamago is bad, worry about the fish. If the admissions office can't get its act together to put forward a minimally competent presentation to prospective students, worry about the administration more broadly.

I'm not sure how fair an assessment that is. In my experience working in higher education, individual departments or offices function fairly independently. The registrar's office can be a dumpster fire while the dean of students and placement offices are well-oiled machines. And none of that necessarily has any correlation with the quality of teaching by individual faculty members. I think my daughter drew a fair inference that something was amiss at the admissions office of the college with the awful presentation, but I'm not convinced that a broader negative inference was warranted.

Meanwhile, I suspect that the potemkin effect is quite pronounced in college admissions for two reasons. First, the cost of exit from a college is much higher than from say, a restaurant. If a Tokyo sushi bar serves excellent tamago but is otherwise mediocre, customers will eat at most one meal there. By contrast, college choices are sticky because there are institutional and other obstacles to overcome in order to transfer.

Second, rankings of institutions of higher education create potemkin incentives. To boost their (pretty arbitrary and arguably racist) reputation scores, colleges and universities invest in creating slick marketing materials that they send to others within their sector. Similar materials are also used to lure students or even just applicants. Because selectivity is part of the ranking formula, a college can boost its score by encouraging high school seniors with little chance of admission to apply, only to be rejected: increasing the denominator thus makes the college more selective. Harsh, right? But it's definitely a thing.

So is "yield protection," in which selective colleges reject applicants they believe will be admitted to and matriculate at even more selective colleges to avoid taking a hit on their "yield"--the percentage of students admitted who attend--which is also a ranking criterion. However, a potemkin strategy would not be a high priority for protecting yield; the colleges would probably prefer that applicants whom they will reject in the name of yield protection didn't apply in the first place; if they're rejected that does boost selectivity, but the main goal of a potemkin strategy is simply to generate applications. Some of those applications were always going to be rejected to enhance selectivity, but presumably the core idea behind marketing the college is to make it look as good as possible to as many applicants as possible.

The key there is "look." One has reason to worry about a potemkin strategy when resources are scarce. If you are the president of a liberal arts college faced with the choice of spending money for need-based financial aid, hiring additional faculty and support staff for environmental studies (a growth field in which, let's say, the college has few people working), or recruitment via the admissions office, you might well choose the last of these, on the theory that if you fail to recruit a good crop of students, you will fall in the rankings, which could then create a negative feedback loop.

In labeling marketing over substance a potemkin strategy, I don't deny that college and university administrators are trapped in a collective action problem created by rankings and Reagan-era decisions treating coordination among colleges and universities as a violation of the antitrust laws. Having worked nearly my entire adult life in higher education, I have the sense that nearly all college, law school, and university administrators would rather make allocative decisions based on pedagogical, scholarly, and other mission-driven criteria.

But it would be foolish for applicants to think that in the degraded world in which we live, they are doing so. A prudent applicant must be alert to the possibility that the college that seems too good to be true is only selling tamago.