It is an extreme and rare occasion when a news outlet publishes an article with such disregard for facts and important context that it effectively sabotages basic journalistic practices.
Such is the case with “At America’s universities, status is for sale,” an opinion piece by freelance writer Max Kutner that appeared in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.
The writer uses a current federal investigation into admissions practices at universities across the country as a premise for a story that reuses a completely unrelated article that appeared in Boston Magazine five years ago.
The Globe article is riddled with breaches of journalistic norms. There is a multitude of instances in which the writer merely recycles quotes and rewrites information from his 2014 piece in Boston Magazine. Throughout the Globe piece, there is no effort to update this information, a shocking departure from Globe standards. Nor is there an effort to verify whether Boston Magazine, in 2014, got the facts right.
How such a story made it into the Globe is unclear. What is clear is that universities exist to educate and reveal truth.
In keeping with this mission, a team of News@Northeastern reporters lays out the departures from accepted journalistic practice and factual inaccuracies throughout the Globe piece.
The basis for the Globe piece is that Northeastern is “caught up” in the current admissions investigation.
This is the classic definition of a false premise. Northeastern is not in any way implicated in the investigation. While a Northeastern graduate is accused of bribing a tennis coach at another university, no one is alleging that Northeastern violated any laws, regulations, or acceptable standards of practice.
The writer alleges that Northeastern is “gaming” the US News rankings. This is apparently based on a comment made to Boston Magazine in 2014 (five years ago) by a former president of Northeastern who stepped down in 2006 (13 years ago).
For the past 13 years, the current leadership of Northeastern has been focused on improving the university across every dimension of its mission, not rankings. (See details below). As is the case in every organization, the strategies and tactics of one leadership team do not have to match those of another.
Without evidence, the writer offers a hypothesis that “spring entry” programs at universities exist solely to distort the standardized test scores submitted to US News.
For the past several years, Northeastern has received more than 62,000 undergraduate applications for just 2,800 seats in the freshman class. As a result, Northeastern developed a spring entry program as a way to stagger enrollment and meet the overwhelming demand for a Northeastern education. (Many American universities have similar programs). The average two-part SAT score for a student admitted to this program—called N.U.in—exceeds 1400 and is in the 97th percentile of all students who take the SAT nationwide.
The writer argues that the reason Northeastern has increased its percentage of international students is to influence rankings because these students—who come from vastly different educational systems and backgrounds—are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores.
Not only is this same practice employed at several peer institutions, there is zero evidence that this is the reason behind the university’s expansion in international students. The truth is that, beginning in 2007, Northeastern started adding international students as a way to prepare all of its students—domestic and international—for the globalized world they will work and live in after graduation. In fact, Northeastern has become more global in other ways during the past 13 years. Our signature co-op has expanded to a 137 countries on all seven continents along with other experiential learning programs. This is a pedagogical priority, and there is no evidence that international students in any way underperform in comparison to American students.
A flaw that runs through the entire Globe piece is a failure to understand the difference between motivation and correlation. For example, when a university dramatically improves its student retention and graduation rates, this is a manifestly positive development. If these improvements have the effect of also improving external rankings, this is simply a byproduct of the institution’s real success.
Below is a brief summary of facts that highlight the unprecedented achievements at Northeastern.
External research funding
2006: $48.7 million
2019: $160.3 million
Freshman to sophomore retention rate
Six-year graduation rate
Average two-part SAT score
Today, 93 percent of Northeastern undergraduates are employed or in graduate school within nine months of graduation.
In 2018, Moody’s Investor Services upgraded Northeastern’s bond rating to A1 at a time when the rating agency offered a “negative outlook” to higher education as a whole.
Over the past 13 years, Northeastern has raised more than $903 million in support from alumni and other donors. This includes the successful completion of its Empower campaign, the largest fundraising drive in university history.
Renata Nyul is vice president for communications at Northeastern University.