A maintained hypothesis at Cold Spring Shops holds that the popularity of league tables such as the U.S. News ranking of universities is a response to an excess demand for perceived quality that less highly regarded universities might consider emulating. Two articles in The Washington Monthly back to college issue corroborate the hypothesis in part. First up, a critical examination (via University Diaries) of George Washington University apparently doing more for the symbolism than for the substance.
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.”

What’s amazing is that this strategy worked.
The article strongly suggests the perception is symbolism, not necessarily substance.
Welcome to today’s increasingly elite higher education system, where lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loads have become the norm. In dogged competition for affluent, high-scoring students, today’s second-tier colleges aim to achieve higher prestige by aping the superficial characteristics of America’s traditionally elite schools. Indeed, there are few alternatives for ambitious administrators. “If you want to rise, you try to do the things that make you look like Harvard,” says David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s hard to take a different path.”
That path, however, comes with tradeoffs. On the one hand, position can be purchased (whether more cheaply than football visibility remains an open question).
Today GW, once a nonentity in national rankings, is rated the fifty-third-best university in America by U.S. News—sitting just outside the magazine’s “tier one,” the exclusive club of great American schools.
On the other hand, there's little evidence that the university's higher visibility is producing stronger students.
It would be one thing if GW and schools like it were trying to break the Ivy League’s monopoly on prestige by offering demonstrably better educations. But there’s very little evidence that the quality of GW’s academic program has risen in step with its tuition rates. When I asked GW if I could see the results of its Collegiate Learning Assessment, a study of institutional academic progress that the Council for Aid to Education, a nonprofit, has carried out at hundreds of schools, the university did not respond. This isn’t unusual; most institutions keep their CLA results closely concealed and actively resist efforts to allow consumer comparisons on that basis. But that leaves precious few markers of academic quality by which to measure such schools.
In football, when Boise State beats Nebraska or Northern Illinois beats Maryland, people notice.

Second, an article about higher education's dropout factories (via Minding the Campus) reinforces another Cold Spring Shops contention, that open-access universities with less-than-collegiate course offerings reinforce social stratification.
With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, [Blue Island resident] Nestor [Curiel] wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,”  he says.
Mr Curiel's college board scores probably suffered from the service Chicago's Eisenhower High School provided him. Chicago State is a retention pond so noisome its trustees are embarrassed.
Only with the help of two dedicated instructors—Shuming Zheng, an engineering professor, and Thomas Kuhn, a physics lecturer—was Nestor able to finish his pre-engineering credits as planned. Fortunately, this allowed him to transfer to a superior school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a $5,000 scholarship.

UIC, adjacent to the city’s downtown, is just fifteen miles north of Chicago State, but felt like a world away. Nestor marveled over the smoothness of the operation. At Chicago State, he had been forced to work hard to find help. At UIC, on the first day of each of his classes, professors provided lists of tutors. Chicago State had offered no meaningful job assistance. At UIC, the engineering department was sending out regular e-mails about internships and other opportunities.

Nestor is certain that the two years at Chicago State put him behind. In his first semester at UIC, he failed a math class, finding it difficult to match the faster pace and heavier workload. (He retook the class, however, and passed.) It’ll take him five years, rather than four, to get his degree. But he says he feels invigorated by the challenges. “It’s hard, but it feels like everybody’s trying to help you,” he says.  “You didn’t get that sense at Chicago State.”
Illinois-Chicago might be a commuter university with the urban mission and first-generation focus; it also has faculty members who do serious research. The job description makes a difference.
According to a study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), which looked at twenty different colleges in the Chicago area, kids who graduate from a Chicago public high school with a grade point average of 3.5 have a 37 percent chance of graduating from Chicago State. Those with the same grades who attend UIC have a much better chance of graduating—56 percent. And for those with a 3.5 GPA who attend Northwestern, just north in Evanston, the completion rate is 89 percent. Even schools all around the country with student profiles as challenging as that of Chicago State—that is, schools with mostly African American and Latino students from low-income backgrounds—have overall graduation rates that are many times higher.

Nestor’s experience of educational incompetence at the college level isn’t just a Chicago phenomenon. Nationwide, low-income minority students are disproportionately steered toward colleges not where they’re most likely to succeed, but where they’re most likely to fail.
Cold Spring Shops is not the only place where observers take a dim view of excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention.
If we want better outcomes in higher education, we need to hold dropout factories like Chicago State accountable in the same way the Obama administration proposes to hold underperforming high schools accountable: transform them—or shut them down.
There's a lot more in the article, including a strong suggestion that enabling students because they face tough challenges or have poor life-management skills is not the best strategy.
As Melissa Roderick, lead author of the Consortium on Chicago School Research report, asks, “How could a child who gets a 4.0 in an urban school system and has high performance in an urban school system and has managed our environment and overcome their poverty, overcome their race, suddenly become a different person in three months who can no longer perform?”

It’s important to note that most students who drop out of college don’t fail out of college. They leave because they don’t perceive that the educational benefit of college exceeds the substantial expense of time and money—especially not when it’s coupled with indifferent bureaucracies that pride themselves more on inane complexities than actually helping students. But when students are given high expectations and good teaching to match, they succeed academically. And when they succeed they’re more likely to keep succeeding and eventually earn a degree.

The worst colleges also tend to plead ignorance as to how to get better. But the strategies employed by colleges that successfully graduate at-risk students aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Researchers have been documenting effective methods of preventing dropouts for decades. Most are commonsensical: pay attention to students, and give them the support they need. When Chicago State couldn’t give Nestor advice about tutors, it wasn’t failing to use “best practices.” It was failing to be minimally competent.
That's not quite "Somebody in Authority Sees It the Same Way". It's refreshing all the same.


Kerry said...

The pricetags of some of these schools *cough* drive me crazy. I wish part of my job duties involved taking students/parents by the shoulders and shaking them back into reality.

But then again...part of me wants to shake them by the ankles and get every last dime. ...mama needs a new pair of shoes.

Stephen Karlson said...

I bet your econ professors aren't buying their own dry erase markers.