Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How do students learn the language of prestige?

I have another daughter who is beginning to look at colleges.  She will be a senior next year, has taken the ACT, and is looking to applying for college in a few months.

As with her older sister, a big part of her thinking has been tied up with the prestige of the schools to which she will apply.  Both her mother and I attended BYU as undergraduates.  My wife's MBA is from BYU also; my PhD is from the University of Delaware.  Good schools both, but neither at the top of anyone's list of the most prestigious schools in America.  Neither of us have focused on prestige in talking with our kids about college.  In fact, I have argued again and again that fit is more important than reputation, and that learning has a lot more to do with student and faculty engagement than with the size of a school's endowment.  Nor have my kids learned to seek prestige from their high school counselors or peers.  They attend a public high school which encourages its graduates to go to college.  Only about half do, and of those last year, only two left the state for college.

This situation--that both of my college-age daughters have been highly concerned about prestige without any direct discussion of it--intrigues me for three reasons.  First, I wonder where strong students come to link their futures with the prestige of the institutions they will attend.  After all, short of a few very famous universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) discussion of prestigious schools isn't part of the broader American culture.  Surely universities with famous football teams (Penn State, Florida, Oklahoma, USC) are better known than excellent liberal arts colleges (Middlebury, Williams, Grinnell), even among the well-educated.

Second, I wonder how prestige has come to be a stand-in for quality, and how that stand-in role is perpetuated among young people.  That prestige stands for quality is, of course, a commonplace, and the basis for most of the many college rankings.  But top students ought to be the least likely to be fooled by the argument that a huge endowment means great learning, or that world-class research faculty mean that freshman composition will be a life-changing experience.

Third, youth culture is undergoing a huge shift in the ways that reputation works.  Nearly every aspect of culture--music, movies, clothing, food--bears a reputational ranking with it now, and young people are happy to rate everything, including college teachers once they enroll.  Somehow, though, student views of institutions of higher education are currently impervious to the reputation revolution going on elsewhere.

So what is it that makes prestige endure?  I suppose there are several answers.  Parent perceptions might be one, since nearly every parent gets some vicarious educational experience through their childrens' schooling.

If I had to bet, based on my daughter's experiences, I would say that prestige is a proxy for opportunity, and that it is the expectation of access to educational opportunities that most shapes a student's views of prestige.  This is an interesting variant of the prestige = quality equation.  Opportunity is sometimes linked to quality, but it is more powerfully linked to access--to travel, to friends, to relationships with faculty, to employment prospects.

What does the research on prestige suggest?  Are there schools that have successfully used reputational rankings to raise their visibility and desirability?  What else does prestige mean to students? 

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