One knock on publicly traded companies is that their leaders’ judgment is sometimes clouded by the intense drive for profits to please the short-term demands of Wall Street.
In the nonprofit sector of higher ed, profit is often measured by prestige. The drive for prestige often clouds the judgment of trustees and presidents, leading them to veer from their mission and, for the last decade or so, to go on a spending spree to keep up with the Joneses in terms of campus amenities or try to climb in the various rankings.
Most presidents will say they don’t care about rankings. They just did so again in a forthcoming survey of campus executives, conducted by The Chronicle, in which presidents put improved U.S. News & World Report rankings dead last in a list of measures by which they judge their success.
But that message obviously hasn’t filtered down to their PR officers, who bombard the news media with press releases each fall, when the U.S. News rankings are released, or their marketing teams, which stuff this publication and others with advertising right around the time U.S. News sends its reputation survey to college leaders.
Maybe it’s because presidents are conflicted about the prestige race. In the same Chronicle survey, presidents said strengthening the reputation of their institution mattered to their success. Left unsaid, of course, is how they measure such strengthening if not by rankings, and not just the much-maligned U.S. News survey.
Presidents also think prestige plays an outsize role in how successful their graduates are in the job market. In the survey, they said a college’s reputation is the most important factor in a graduate’s résumé.
What’s interesting about the presidents’ take on reputation is that employers completely disagree with it. In a survey of employers that The Chronicle released last week in conjunction with American Public Media’s Marketplace, those who hire ranked a college’s reputation last on a list of criteria used to evaluate job candidates. They thought internships were most important. Of course, employers are also conflicted about the reputation issue since some large companies send recruiters only to top colleges and universities.
For many institutions, the prestige race is a losing battle. If I counted the number of presidents who have said over the years that they wanted to move into the top tier of some ranking, you’d find 50 colleges trying to fit into 20 spots. The truth is that the list of the best colleges and universities in the United States has remained virtually unchanged for the last century. That’s certainly the case if you look at the history of the U.S. News rankings.
Yet there was Florida State University last month announcing a five-year, $75-million plan to move into the top 25 of public universities in the U.S. News rankings.
The issue is whether much of American higher education can afford to continue to play the prestige game when many small private colleges are going broke and public colleges are seeing their share of instructional dollars from the states shrink, putting more of the cost of education on the backs of students.
In the current financial environment, experimentation is needed and differentiation is rewarded. MOOCs resulted from experiments in teaching at Stanford University and, a year and half later, are beginning to show that colleges that fail to differentiate their offerings, especially large introductory lecture courses, face real threats.
Competency-based education is the next experiment, as the University of Wisconsin, Northern Arizona University, and Southern New Hampshire University try to differentiate their offerings to serve a population hungry for higher education.
Historically, the prestige race doesn’t reward different in higher ed. Much like on Wall Street when companies go private in order to rebuild themselves for the long term, we need a new kind of prestige race in higher ed to deal with challenges of the next decade.