Monday, November 10, 2008

Most Colleges Chase Prestige on a Treadmill, Researchers Find


Monday, November 10, 2008

Jacksonville, Fla.

The pursuit of institutional prestige has done little to improve the reputations of most colleges and, in fact, may be causing many of them to become less distinguishable from their competitors, according to research presented here on Saturday at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

"Is the price of prestige worth pursuing?," asked Robert M. Hendrickson, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park and moderator of a panel discussion of much of the research. Arguing that the quest for prestige "has time and again failed, and weakened institutions," he said colleges should focus on carrying out their basic missions and improving their academic offerings, and "let the chips fall where they may."

In one study presented here, Kyle V. Sweitzer, a data-resource analyst at Michigan State University's office of planning and budgets, and J. Fredericks Volkwein, a senior scientist at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education, examined changes over nine annual issues in how colleges' undergraduate programs were rated by peer institutions in surveys administered by U.S. News & World Report. They found that only about two out of five institutions saw significant changes in their scores from 1999 to 2007, and the single biggest driver of such fluctuations was changes in colleges' admissions selectivity.

Moreover, the researchers found, master's-level universities and comprehensive colleges accounted for more than nine out of 10 of the 418 institutions with noteworthy changes in their peer-assessment scores. The nation's research universities and liberal-arts colleges "have been remarkably stable over time in their academic reputations," with just 14 of the former and 25 of the latter experiencing substantial changes in this area, according to a paper summarizing the researchers' findings. The study was limited to 1,095 colleges that remained in the same institutional category in U.S. News over the period covered.

All the efforts by colleges to improve their reputations did not appear to have bolstered how colleges over all were viewed by peers, the study concluded. The average score that colleges received in the U.S. News peer-assessment surveys remained unchanged over nine years, suggesting that college officials responding to the surveys viewed the ratings as a zero-sum game and—intentionally or subconsciously—tended to give only a certain number of colleges certain high or low scores each year.

"If one school goes up, another goes down, is really what it boils down to," Mr. Sweitzer said in presenting his and Mr. Volkwein's findings.

The best predictor of whether a college's reputation would rise was whether it increased the share of its entering freshmen who had been in the top quarter of their high-school class. An improvement in a college's graduation rate—an outcome closely related to selectivity—was the second best predictor of whether its reputation-based score would rise. Changes in the number of publications produced by each faculty member was correlated with changes in the reputation of comprehensive colleges in statistical but not practical terms because each faculty member would have to produce 10 additional publications a year for a college's rating to rise significantly, Mr. Sweitzer said.

More Prestige, More Sameness

In a second study presented by the panel, two doctoral students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities—Thomas Sanford and Giljae Lee—looked at the variables that explained changes in colleges' U.S. News rankings over a two-year period, from 2006 to 2008. Comparing changes in the scores the magazine gave colleges with changes in the colleges' rankings, the researchers found that the lower ranked a college was, the more its ranking fluctuated in response to score changes. In other words, a low-ranked college could rise substantially based on only a slight increase in its point score, while a high-ranked college could have its score increase but see little or no rise in its ranking.

In a third study, J. Douglas Toma, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, closely examined efforts to gain prestige by four public colleges with very different missions: Georgia State University (a research institution), Georgia Southern University (a comprehensive institution), Georgia College & State University (a liberal-arts college), and Georgia Perimeter College (a community college).

Mr. Toma found that, despite differences in their missions, all four colleges shared "a common aspiration: reaching the next level in status hierarchy in American higher education." They also shared a "rather generic set of strategies" for attaining that goal, including attracting more accomplished students, improving campus amenities like housing and fitness facilities to aid in recruiting, and using intercollegiate athletics to better position themselves.

"Better facilities are bringing better students who are demanding better facilities," Mr. Toma said in presenting his findings. "The academic programs at these places are really changing only marginally."

Although all four colleges put substantial effort into "representing themselves as different," their strategies to gain prestige "are making them more similar to competitors or aspirational institutions," his paper says.

In the paper, Mr. Toma makes clear that he believes the pursuit of prestige poses risks. Georgia State, Georgia Southern, and Georgia College, he said, all could alienate traditional constituencies, like teaching-focused faculty members, part-time students, and "parents whose children can no longer get into an institution their tax dollars have supported." The colleges' need for private funds to finance their quest for prestige exposes them to pressure by lenders and donors, and efforts to raise admissions standards might lower access.

Mr. Toma's four-college analysis is part of a broader study of 41 colleges serving the Atlanta market. He said that he considered the four colleges representative of their types among all of the institutions he examined, and that the basic conclusions reached in his broader study, to be published in a book, "are identical" to those in his four-college survey.

Competing With Honors Colleges

In a fourth paper, presented separately at the conference, Elena V. Galinova, a senior undergraduate-studies adviser at Penn State's main campus, conducted case studies of how honors programs are run by three types of public institutions: a large research university, a master's university, and a community college. (She assigned the three fictitious names for reasons of confidentiality, and they cooperated extensively with her.)

Ms. Galinova focused on the question of whether honors programs produce social stratification at their host institutions. She concluded that they did not because they were open to large populations. Even the very selective programs at the research university had policies of reaching out to nonhonors students.

In fact, in terms of prestige, Ms. Galinova concluded that such programs "help decrease the degree of overall stratification between colleges and universities." The large research university she examined "may be dozens of places below Princeton or Penn on the U.S. News & World Report rankings list, but its honors college comes very close, is in fact almost equal, to them," she said.

Even inclusive honors programs, like the one at the master's university she examined, "might indirectly play a role in raising the perceived quality of their universities by helping them improve important institutional characteristics such as retention and graduation rates."

Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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