I’ve gotten a few e-mails today complaining about the use of the word “fake” in my latest Chronicle column:
Harvard has the opposite of a brand deficit. It has a brand surplus. The name is so strong that Harvard can run a side business selling fake Harvard credits and nobody bats an eye.
Here I’m referring to Harvard Summer School, an open admissions operation that Harvard runs over the summer where people can pay thousands of dollars to live in dorms once occupied by actual Harvard students. (The Web site says, for real, “JFK slept here … And so did Henry David Thoreau, Natalie Portman, and Al Gore.” This seems like kind of a dated and uncreative list.) I assume it’s a reasonably lucrative program since the university advertises in venues like The New York Times Education Life section. Students can also take some Harvard Summer School courses online. If you’re wondering if these courses really measures up to the famous Harvard brand, I would simply note that Harvard College itself doesn’t accept online credits from Harvard Summer School.
Now, in a very narrow sense I suppose one could argue that these aren’t “fake” Harvard credits in the same sense that they would be “fake” if I myself set up a Web site and started charging people $2,580 for courses claiming to confer “Harvard” credits. But, big picture, credits are only a means to an end—certifying that someone has learned enough to warrant a degree. The realness or fakeness of a given credit is therefore bound up in its utility for degree purposes. If someone graduates from Harvard, they say, “I have a degree from Harvard.” If they go to Harvard and drop out, they say something like “I attended Harvard.” Neither the degree holder nor the drop-out says “I earned credits from Harvard.” Graduate school, the job market—nobody cares how many credits you earned in college; they only care if you do or don’t have a degree. If the institution in question has selective admissions what they mostly care about is that you were smart enough to get accepted in the first place.
So if a university is selling credits as “Harvard” credits that cannot be used toward a degree at Harvard College, then it is selling fake Harvard credits. The fact that Harvard itself happens to be doing this doesn’t change that fact.
All of which highlights the need to move past institutionwide brands as the way of signalling quality in the higher education market, which is actually the point of the column.