Academe's Scuffle for Prestige

Los Angeles Times
November 6, 2004 Saturday

Americans are curiously passive about the price of a college education. They shake their heads over wild academic inflation but think the best they can do is hope it calms down. Meanwhile, the price of tuition at private universities rose this year by more than twice the rate of overall inflation, as it has for years, according to the latest survey by the College Board. Public universities raised tuition prices 10.5% -- more than four times the inflation rate. UCLA's chancellor is proposing a tuition hike from the current $6,000 or so to $15,000 or more, to preserve the university's elite status.

Polls show that most Americans trust academia, with its missions of educating young people, producing credible research and fostering great thinkers. What many fail to recognize, though, is that for a decade, colleges and universities have been engaging in a sort of academic arms race for prestige by expanding research programs and competing for top-level scholars. It has relatively little to do with educating young people, especially undergraduates. But it pushes costs higher.

It would have been a feather in the cap of UCLA had it managed two years ago to lure Victorian literature scholar Leah Price away from Harvard. But would that have measurably increased the quality of education for a UCLA English major? Not likely. Top-level professors spend most of their time on research or scholarship, not teaching. Tenure is more likely to be decided based on their publishing history than how well they reach out to young minds.

Prestige helps colleges become well known, bring in grants and attract top students. It makes a dramatic difference in their standing in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which are based largely on the perceptions of college officials surveyed by the magazine.

The rankings have gained a ludicrous influence over decisions by university presidents. Four-year colleges have felt growing pressure to open graduate schools and research centers. That in turn has led to some sloppy research and an increased willingness to accept conflicts of interest -- such as money from drug companies to test the effectiveness of their drugs.

The quest for prestige also drives up costs, affecting poor and working-class students the most. Though colleges are granting more financial help, the money increasingly goes to merit-based scholarships, not need-based financial aid. In addition, a recent study at Stanford University found that most parents and students didn't realize the financial aid was available.

Within academia, though, there's a small but growing group calling for change. The University of Maryland recently outlined a broad-based plan to accept more students while trimming costs -- in part by having professors do a little more teaching, even if it means a little less publishing. The University of Virginia requires all undergraduates to complete their studies by the summer after senior year, instead of continuing to occupy publicly subsidized classroom seats. The San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education suggests that University of California campuses compete for state research grants. Currently, the campuses are paid based on the number of students they have, not the quality or efficiency of their research.

That's just a start. Real change would involve mutating the tenure system to reward teaching. It would also require a new measurement of prestige, based on the quality of students' educations rather than the fame of the faculty. Research and scholarship are part of what makes American higher education great, but they shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the mission of teaching the next generation of leaders -- or to drive tuition beyond the dreams of most families.