Universities as Prestige Maximizers, and the Growing Disconnect with the Public

Yale University

by James A. Bacon

I have long observed that nonprofit colleges and universities, by virtue of being nonprofit, behave very differently than for-profit enterprises. Having weak systems for accountability, higher-ed institutions are captured by their internal constituencies whose interests they place of those of students and their families. Instead of endeavoring to maximize profits, as profit-seeking enterprises do, university leaders seek to maximize prestige compared to other institutions. The result is an endless “arms race” treadmill that misallocates billions of dollars across the industry.

Now comes some empirical support for my hypothesis from Peter Q. Blair and Kent Smetters, with Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania respectively, in a paper entitled, “Why don’t elite colleges expand supply?”

In a word, universities don’t expand supply because it increases institutional prestige to not do so.

The authors launch their argument with the observation that Yale in 1979 reported 1,346 college freshmen. In 2016, the size of the entering class stood at 1,360 — an increase of 14 students. By comparison, the number of applications to Yale increased by more than 300% — from 9,331 students to 30,932. The pattern for other elite colleges is the same.

“Elite colleges … are serving a smaller and smaller share of total college-bound students, becoming more exclusive all the time,” the authors write. “Elite colleges are now often distinguished by their rising SAT scores and falling admission rates.”

A falling ratio of applications to acceptances indicates greater “selectivity.” So do rising SAT scores. As those metrics burnish institutional prestige, I would add (the authors do not explore this), allows universities to hire more prestigious faculty members. Likewise, when hiring presidents, provosts, deans and other senior officers, university leaders show strong preferences for candidates from more prestigious institutions, who bring their elitist priorities with them.

Prestige considerations induce universities to follow the contradictory aims of adding expensive amenities that pump up the cost of attendance while simultaneously trying to recruit from “non-traditional” demographic groups, typically minorities, that typically find the cost unaffordable.

These same phenomena apply to public universities, including those in Virginia, although the numbers may not be as stark because public universities do face pressure from politicians and the public to expand enrollment and prioritize in-state students. But no sane person would deny that the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Tech do not endeavor to maximize their prestige within those limitations.

How does this affect the ongoing debate about the role of higher education today? When colleges and universities are prestige maximizers, they take their cues from the most prestigious institutions. If the Ivy League universities and quasi Ivies like Stanford and Duke are increasingly “woke” in their recruiting, hiring, and campus cultures, institutions below them on prestige ladder eagerly embrace the same practices.

The problem arises from the fact that the Ivies and other private institutions, by virtue of being private, are free to pursue their own visions without accountability to anyone but themselves. But Virginia’s public universities are — or should be — accountable to taxpayers and the public. And taxpayers and the public may have different priorities than maximizing institutional prestige, especially if that prestige is maximized by nurturing campus cultures that are antithetical to the middle-class families who pay an ever-escalating cost of attendance.

Bacon’s bottom line: The institutional imperative to maximize prestige puts university administrators at odds with the public they serve. The rift is widening seemingly by the day.

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11 responses to “Universities as Prestige Maximizers, and the Growing Disconnect with the Public”

  1. FluxAmbassador Avatar

    “But no sane person would deny that the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Tech do not endeavor to maximize their prestige within those limitations.”

    Either because you’re lazy or you know no such proof exists, you of course offer nothing even resembling supporting evidence for this claim. Here is UVA: https://ira.virginia.edu/university-stats-facts/undergraduate-admissions

    They’ve doubled the amount of offer letters since 1991 and increased enrollment by about 1.5 (eye balling). The increase in enrollment has lagged the increase in applications for the past decade. Whether this reflects an institution that is trying to prime the prestige pump or one that is conservative when it comes to purchasing property to construct dorms is a decision left to the reader, but at least I’ll be intellectually honest enough to include it. I’m too tired today to see if similar exists for W&M and Virginia Tech.

    Here are some more interesting questions to pursue: why does anyone care what elite colleges do? Who cares if Harvard and Yale and UVA throttle their admissions if there are other universities – your Masons, Madisons, ODUs, and VCUs – that are willing to build out and pick up the slack? If the prestige universities are all becoming wokeness chasers then certainly the educational product must suffer right, according to your own line of thinking? Isn’t that the point of having a decentralized slate of Virginia public universities – to give them the ability to experiment and the public the ability to choose?* Is it the case that having a prestigious university and the attendant talent it attracts more of a benefit to the Commonwealth and its taxpayers than merely another average state university?

    And maybe it’s because I grew up just a rung below middle class, but nothing in the campus cultures I’ve seen talked about here is antithetical to me. Except maybe the prudish insistence against large swear words on dormitory doors.

    *I can think of no other benefit especially compared to the more efficient and better structured SUNY, UT, UNC, and UC/CSU/CCC systems.

    1. FluxAmbassador Avatar

      And to be more forthright, all this looks like from the outside is just a bunch of pissing and moaning that the popular/cool/successful people aren’t doing things the way you want them to with a little bit of “but it could have slippery downstream consequences of wokeness” boogeymanning tacked on at the end. I got no love lost for the Ivy Leagues, the graduates of which have been responsible for some of our most disastrous policies going back to at least the Kennedy administration (best and brightest my ass). I’m ecstatic that for the first time since roughly the invention of the wheel that we have a POTUS/VPOTUS combo with no connection to the Ivies.

      But these are fundamentally not vanguard institutions. If wokeness was really antithetical to the majority of Americans then these elite institutions would drop it in a heartbeat rather than risk their endowments dropping by a nickel. Torture aficionado John Yoo is a law professor at Berkeley for crying out loud – Berkely, the OG woke university!

      Taken in total, it seems like in society and culture writ large – and reflected at universities – there is an acceptance of the central points of social justice/left/woke/whatever thought. Take aim at that all you want, but this slippery sloping about “elite” universities looks like so much sour grapes.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Well put. And I would add, if those bastions of conservatism, such as banks, corporations, hedge funds, investment bankers, etc., object to what the Ivies are producing, then they should look elsewhere in their hiring. And, to follow up on the example of John Yoo, two of the last three Supreme Court Justices were pure products of the Ivies.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          No response from JAB?


          I feel cheated.

        2. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Throwing in Notre Dame didn’t hurt them.

          BTW, Ken Starr wound up at Pepperdine. Even as the most craven liberal of whom I can think, I’d have gouged both eyes with hot knitting needles to have been accepted there.

          Prestige is prestige, conservative or liberal, and contrary to popular opinion, small class size is the least creator of prestige, researching faculty is by far the greater contributor.

          Here’s a test. Name the most prestigious engineering school in America (hint: it produces more undergraduates by percentage who attain PhDs)?

          No, not MIT. Not VT. Not CalTech. I’d be amazed if anyone here ever heard of it, but any engineer will know it instantly.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other not also wither and die?

    3. Gee, Flux, you left out part of the quote.

      These same phenomena apply to public universities, including those in Virginia, although the numbers may not be as stark because public universities do face pressure from politicians and the public to expand enrollment and prioritize in-state students.

      But you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think UVa, W&M and Virginia Tech don’t all want to climb the prestige rankings. As I recall, former UVa Rector William H. Goodwin articulated a goal for UVa to reach the Top 10 in college rankings. I don’t know if UVa still embraces that as a formal goal, but no one has renounced it. How else do you explain the obsession with continually plowing money into new facilities, recruiting prestige faculty who lend their names but carry tiny teaching loads, and building the endowment (very little of which is spent on making the cost of attendance more affordable).

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Maybe but I don’t think any of them worry about enrollment demand especially out of state and out of country – an unsatiated demand.

    4. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      The wretch, concentred all in self,
      Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
      And, doubly dying, shall go down
      To the vile ink, from whence they sprung,
      Unemployed, unedited, and unread.

      The Conservatives see the universities as ivory towers, separated from, divorced of, the enterprise system that must be returned to the fold. The Liberals, me anyway, has watched them become so entwined they will never be separated — part and parcel — and oddly, we have the government and its research dollars to thank.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    G. W. Bush was a Yalie, and also the most likely to eat an onion for a dollar.

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