The Demand-Driven Prestige Racket
The Washington Monthly’s college rankings issue is an excellent read, and I hope their list of dropout factories generates an appropriate level of heartburn for crummy administrators (their list of top community colleges is another great idea). One of their articles takes on the “prestige racket,” a series of second tier colleges and universities that have raised their national profiles by jacking up tuition and building lots of fancy facilities:
Today George Washington, like many “up-and-coming” second-tier schools—American University, New York University—is ruinously expensive. After decades of offering a low-cost education, GW took a sharp turn upmarket in the late 1980s under the presidency of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. The university went on a high-class building spree, financed by a dizzying series of tuition increases. When Trachtenberg took office, undergraduate tuition was $14,000—below average for a private, four-year college. By the time he left in 2007, it had mushroomed to $39,000 a year (or, including fees and room and board, a whopping $50,000)—making GW the most expensive school in the United States.
What Trachtenberg understood was that perception is reality in higher education—and perception can be bought. “You can get a Timex or a Casio for $65 or you can get a Rolex or a Patek Philippe for $10,000. It’s the same thing,” Trachtenberg says. The former president gambled that students who couldn’t quite get into the nation’s most exclusive colleges—and who would otherwise overlook a workmanlike school like the old GW—would flock to a university that at least had a price tag and a swank campus like those of the Ivy Leagues. “It serves as a trophy, a symbol,” he says. “It’s a sort of token of who they think they are.”
Now, I think this is a pretty terrible way to run an institution. But I wonder if the “prestige racket” phenomenon is entirely the fault of nefarious school administrators. In fact, the article suggests that schools like GW are quite rationally responding to student demand:
According to the conventional wisdom in student recruitment, statistics about job placement and department quality often seem impossibly remote to high school seniors. Instead they respond to soaring student unions, fitness centers worthy of the Olympics, and dormitories with a kitchen in every suite. GW aimed to oblige: the American Institute of Architects gave the Marvin Center its highest award, the Excellence in Architecture prize, in 2003. (The strategy behind the new center may have been even more pointed: at the time, schools were desperate for ways to increase the percentage of admitted students who enrolled, because that’s something U.S. News measured. The magazine stopped doing so in 2003, though there is talk of reintroducing that metric.)
I think there are two things at work here. As the authors note, it’s extremely difficult for rising high school seniors to make fine grain distinctions between elite universities. Fancy buildings and impressive-looking architecture are undoubtedly useful tools for wooing would-be undergrads.
But I also think that this is a consequence of students viewing college as something to be experienced rather than the more traditional, achievement-oriented process. Commentators who take on the “college as a life experience” approach to higher education tend to complain about partying, sports culture, and Greek life. And fair enough – none of these activities are really integral to the core educational mission of colleges and universities. But the highbrow equivalent of tailgating and keg stands is going to a college that prizes impressive facilities and mindless credentialism over academics, which is exactly the demographic GW seems to be after. Would GW’s prestige-driven strategy work without a pool of students (and parents) eager to attend an institution whose core appeal consists of networking opportunities and squash (“A GW athletic director explained to the Washington Post that the whole point of the GW squash program was to attract students who wanted to attend an Ivy League college and couldn’t get in.”)? I think not, which is why the problems of higher education are more deeply-rooted than a few cynical administrators.