Impacts of Prestige Seeking in Higher Education

Academe Blog

By Desiree Zerquera

With fall recruitment in full swing, many colleges and universities may be eager to tout their updated facilities, star faculty, and standings among one of the many rankings that evaluate higher education on the basis of a variety of metrics across lists and sublists. However, the cost of earned rankings and expensive amenities during times of increased financial restraint and stratification of opportunity in higher education warrant scrutiny.

In 1956, the late sociologist David Riesman depicted higher education as a snake-like procession in which colleges and universities within lower tiers of the academic hierarchy imitate those within higher tiers. He explained this imitation game as one that persists within a system based on imitating top-ranked institutions on elements that may have more to do with perceptions and less to do with serving students.

This depiction rings ever true today. Contemporary scholars have described this as prestige seeking—collective activities engaged in that are thought to enhance rankings and public perceptions. Recent analysis of data from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that all types of four-year colleges and universities engaged in prestige seeking over the past decade, which can be seen in changes in undergraduate selectivity, increased investment in research revenue, and the development or investment in men’s football teams.

These investments do not always pay off in the prestige game as top rankings are not always achievable. Prestige is zero-sum, and there can only be one number one.  But in our winner-take-all society, are we considering who the losers are?  Some institutions have much more to lose than others.

Presidents across the nation tout their standings amongst aspirational peers. But, as the urban campus of the University of Texas-San Antonio may draw comparisons to the state’s flagship in Austin, it does so with fewer research dollars, capacity, or legacy that carry so much weight in this race.

It is like the San Antonio Helotes little league baseball team taking on the Houston Astros, and arguing that they have a better record. Going head-to-head, the Astros would be playing a game they couldn’t win either—an upset would be an embarrassment; a win would be shameful. This is not to be pejorative, but instead to highlight the absurdity. The coach of the Helotes is no less of a coach than that of the Astros. Indeed, one could argue that coaching inner-city kids is a different challenge with different rewards. He’s just playing in a different league. With a different team. For a different purpose.

Surely being better is in the best interest of institutions and the communities they serve. We should always want to be better and work towards outcomes that do so. But are our colleges and universities sufficiently working towards being better for their own student populations, or to serve different purposes?

Increased investment in prestige-seeking activities have occurred during a global recession which has shaped a new normal for higher education of diminished public funding and greater concern about how money is spent. Concurrently, while resources have centered on recruiting desired students to colleges and universities—those with high test scores and ability to pay—stratification of students of Black and Latino backgrounds has exacerbated, with these students concentrated in open-access and less-resourced institutions.

Universities like UTSA have consistently invested in serving large proportions of Black and Latino students, despite fewer resources to do so. However, this achievement is not one that is always celebrated in the same way as earning large federal research grants or the football team reaching Division I status. As tension in our nation increasingly makes us turn inward, at what point will the types of strides made by universities like UTSA be recognized and celebrated in the same way?

We need more structural support of these endeavors. Policy leaders need to shift their discourse within their own states and recognize ways their own biases influence preferences for certain institutions over others. Ranking systems should reward institutions that serve marginalized students, and not just through specially-designated sublists. For instance, given that we know the range of systemic inequities that shape the preparation of Black and Latino students widely, we should reward those institutions that serve greater proportions of these students and are able to make up for years of educational and societal disservice. Universities themselves need to reject the values of rewards systems that are in opposition to the important missions they serve. It’s time for us to shake the system fully and push what’s really important to the forefront.