The Journal of Higher Education 74.4 (2003) 474-476
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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. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002. 176 pp. $29.95.
In Pursuit of Prestige is an important exercise in conceptualization. Like Charles Clotfelter, William Massy, and others, the authors seek to understand higher education principally as an industry. At the core of their analysis is a simple yet powerful taxonomy that classifies institutions as prestigious, prestige seeking, or reputation building. Institutions that have acquired prestige—the industry's medallion colleges and universities—are inherently conservative in their marshalling of resources, more concerned with preserving than extending the advantages that selective admissions, robust endowments, and substantial sponsored research confer. Prestigious institutions focus on the long term, in no small part [End Page 474] because they are financially secure for the present. Institutions that have acquired substantial prestige are more likely to be faculty focused—more likely to use the financial resources that accompany prestige to attract and retain key faculty.
At the other end of the spectrum are those institutions that seek reputation rather than prestige. These are the institutions that are the most tuition dependent and hence most likely to be focused on the needs of their students as customers. They are concerned with the here and now in the sense that they pursue short-term strategies that allow them to adjust their offering as the markets for both undergraduate and graduate education shift. They see their roles not in terms of setting standards but in becoming models of successful practice.
Caught in the middle are those institutions that are prestige seeking. Often short of discretionary funds, frequently forced to compete in markets with high entry costs, prestige-seeking colleges and universities are the industry's biggest gamblers. They have embraced merit scholarships as a way of boosting their prestige by enrolling heavily recruited students. They have upgraded their athletic programs in pursuit of the kind of halo effect a winning program or, even better, a national championship promises. They have focused their research investments in a few, well-funded appointments that promise big pay-offs in the scramble for research funds.
With its focus on strategy as opposed to financial structure or institutional governance, In Pursuit of Prestige joins that handful of monographs and studies that are remaking the study of higher education finance. Charles Clotfelter's Buying the Best: Cost Escalation in Elite Higher Education made clear that attracting and retaining a competitive faculty was the strategic imperative that determined the prices medallion institutions charged their students. Goldman's own collaboration with William Massy—The Production and Utilization of Science and Engineering Doctorates in the United States—subsequently demonstrated that the number of doctoral candidates as well as postdoctorate positions in the sciences was largely determined by a similar strategic imperative—namely, the drive on the part of research faculty at research universities to increase their rate of publication and hence enhance their scholarly prestige. My work with Susan Shaman and Dan Shapiro—Higher Education as Competitive Enterprise: When Markets Matter—shifted the focus to the workings of the market and the growing tension between public purposes and market forces. Many of these ideas are now finding their apotheosis in the research agenda that Patricia Gumport and the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement is developing at the behest of the U.S. Department of Education.
Part of the fun of engaging in these discussions is the opportunity each of these monographs and studies provides to "push-back against the grain" of their argument to see how the analysis itself may be extended. In the case of In Pursuit of Prestige three such "push-backs" come readily to mind. The first is the authors' assertion that prestige is hard to capitalize—that is, it is difficult to convert a gain in prestige into more dollars to spend immediately. While in general an institution does have to spend money to get and...