Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Aim of Higher Education: Education...or Prestige?

The focus of this article is college admissions, but it surely describes perfectly what has happened in law schools over the past 20 years:

For colleges, the cycle is a relentless drive for status, prestige, and revenue, in which the metrics are unequivocal: Applications must increase, test scores must rise, acceptance rates must fall, and enough full payers must attend to finance the institution's goals and aspirations....

Meanwhile, the nation's demographics amply demonstrate that few institutions can post gains across each of those metrics, cer­tainly not without leaving out most low-income and minority students, and not without directing attention away from the nation's dire need for greater degree attainment.

College and university leaders—trustees, presidents, chief academic officers—have the unenviable responsibility of ensuring their institutions' continued financial viability while pursuing increasingly ambitious academic missions. In this pursuit, their strong turn to the competitive marketplace is understandable. But it is also clear that more is happening here. There is an insatiable appetite for prestige and status that accompanies the drive for revenues. What we see now is that marketplace competition has escalated to the point at which it threatens to become the mission rather than to serve the mission. And for what gain?

An institution can achieve short-term market advantage through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.

While some institutions can handle the added expense, there are broader costs that no college can handle alone. As numerous scholars have documented, zealous pursuit of institutional interest has come at the expense of social goals and the public trust. Moreover, there is a loss of educational values, a loss that we cannot afford. One effect of our pursuit of rankings and prestige has been to change how students view college. No longer seen as the crucial capstone of an educational journey, a degree is now regarded as a ticket to economic advantage. Students and institutions alike, it seems, are branding themselves in pursuit of positioning.

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