Monday, December 1, 2008

Today's Tamar Lewin Page One Story Sound Familiar? You Read It Two Years Ago In The Times.

If today's page-one story about college admissions by Tamar Lewin has a familiar ring to it, that's because the Times published a story with the identical thesis less than three years ago in its Education Life section. One more time and the story idea itself will be a trend.

Both stories reported the same supposed phenomenon -- that more American students are enrolling in foreign universities -- and with the same total lack of evidence to prove it. Both also used the University of St. Andrews in Scotland as a primary example, and even shared the expertise of Stephen Magee, the vice-principal at the school. The only difference is that Tamar Lewin misspelled Magee's given name as Steven.

The first version, by freelance writer Leslie Berger, appeared on January 8, 2006 in the Times's Education Life section. Called "Far, Far and Away," Berger stated her thesis this way:

As domestic tuitions rise yearly and the world grows smaller by the minute, going to an English-language college abroad is an increasing option for superior students.

Whereas Lewin puts it a little differently:

With higher education fast becoming a global commodity, universities worldwide — many of them in Canada and England — are competing for the same pool of affluent, well-qualified students, and more American students are heading overseas not just for a semester abroad, but for their full degree program.

To be fair, you will see from reading those sentences that some significant differences exist between the two stories. According to Berger, the world is growing smaller by the minute; Lewin makes no such assertion. Lewin argues that higher education is fast becoming a global commodity; Berger fails to mention that.

But the two reporters share an equal distaste for facts to prove their thesis. A close look at both will reveal no statistics whatsoever to back up the thesis that more students are doing this -- or, as Berger puts it, that it has become "an increasing option." Indeed, immediately after reporting that as fact, Berger followed up with this contradictory caveat: "Don't expect to keep bumping into fellow countrymen just yet: the percentage of Americans ranges from 1 percent at Oxford to 10 percent at the University of St. Andrews, on Scotland's east coast."

Lewin's page-one story devotes 1803 words to the topic, yet almost none of them offers any support for her claim that more students have enrolled in foreign universities -- or, indeed, even explains the "more" reference. The only specific piece of data comes from the University of St. Andrews, which reports a six-fold increase in Americans over the last decade -- but without any figures about the school's overall enrollment. Even an increase at one school (one that clearly likes to promote its interest in Americans, as we know from Berger's earlier version) hardly supports the sweeping assertion that sold this to page one.

Lewin threads unsupported assertions throughout her story; at another point in the piece, she writes that "expatriate education is expanding," but offers no proof except that at a meeting of college admissions counselors this fall, dozens of foreign universities were represented. How do we know if that's an increase? For all we know, hundreds attended in previous years.

Coincidentally, both stories also reflect the reporters' common affection for bad writing. To explain her point that Americans appeal to foreign universities because of their ability to pay, she reports: "Foreigners are cash cows." In reporting on an American student who chose University College Utrecht in the Netherlands over the University of California at Berkeley, Berger explained that he "readily passed up the tawny hills of Northern California for the chilly canals of the Netherlands."

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