The Journal of Higher Education 74.2 (2003) 238-240
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In Pursuit of Prestige: Strategy and Competition in U.S. Higher Education by Dominic J. Brewer, Susan M. Gates, and Charles A. Goldman. Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001. 175 + xiii pp. $29.95 (cloth).
A widely held view of American higher education is that it is "schizophrenic," according to Dominic Brewer, Susan Gates, and Charles Goldman and their book, In Pursuit of Prestige: Strategy and Competition in U.S. Higher Education. The system is, at once, the envy of the world, and broadly maligned as wasteful of its resources chasing unclear goals. These are not the polar positions of warring camps, but views held at once by many individuals.
The authors, economists at the RAND Corporation, apply an "industry study" framework to this exploratory study. But the reader should fear neither a quantitative bog, nor the imposition of a widgets-factory-efficiency ideal on the postsecondary enterprise. The study is qualitative (although background technical papers are available without charge from RAND), and grounded in 26 diverse institutional case studies. Brewer, Gates, and Goldman are clearly sympathetic to higher education, and in fact go to considerable lengths to engage and inform the non-specialist. Footnotes and main text are employed to explain concisely such concepts as accreditation and the Carnegie Classification system.
The authors hold that "higher education is an industry in which consumers are often underinformed in the sense that they cannot objectively evaluate the quality of the service before they actually purchase it" (p. 19). This is a common circumstance in service industries, but particularly true in higher education, where the emergence of benefits may not be apparent for years and decades. In such circumstances, the regard of the institution held by customers or other funders becomes paramount. But not every strategy for external regard is the same, and the authors categorize the two, basic strategies as the pursuit of reputation, or that of prestige.
While these are fairly synonymous terms in common usage, the authors apply and distinguish them very specifically. Reputation, which can be good or bad, rests on the ability to meet fairly specific consumer demands. It's usually fairly local, word-of-mouth, and updated on an ongoing basis. Prestige, on the other hand, is always positive, but more intangible. Prestige institutions are less likely to demonstrate the delivery of high-quality service and other elements of reputation, but they do conspicuously acquire and showcase elements that are [End Page 238] indirectly associated with such service. These elements, which the authors call prestige generators, are said to be student quality, research, and sports. (The authors resisted the suggestion offered by some institutions that a high-quality faculty be considered a prestige generator; in an economic model, faculty are a cost or investment, not a source of revenue.) A further distinction of prestige is that, unlike reputation, it is inherently a zero-sum game: advances come at others' loss. The point, ultimately, of either strategy is the capture of additional resources, from enrollments, research funding, public support, and private giving. A special category of institution draws the interest of the authors: institutions that have depended on reputation, but that are seeking prestige.
The authors go to lengths to make their point that prestige and reputation are not absolute, exclusive concepts, nor would every prestige-based institution be able to, or interested in, competing on every element of that definition. Moreover, while the emphasis on prestige would increase as one moved up institutional classifications, both prestige and reputation seekers can be found at every level of higher education; the authors gave this diversity some consideration in their selection of case studies.
The implications of this model are many, and the authors examine several provocatively. For prestige-seeking institutions and some prestige schools, for example, the issue of early admission programs is considered. Under these programs, a student applies to only one institution, and is obligated to attend if accepted on an accelerated-decision schedule. Prestige is generated by a higher "yield...