Prestige, Quality and Cost

April 28, 2011

Today in Inside Higher Education, Catherine Hill, President of Vassar, has an opinion piece called “Beyond Supply and Demand” in which she objects to an argument earlier put forward in the New York Times by Henry Riggs, emeritus president of Harvey Mudd.

On Vassar’s website, Hill’s biography tells us “Hill is a noted economist whose work focuses on higher education affordability and access, as well as on economic development and reform in Africa.”

Both Riggs and Hill are trying to make sense of how the market for higher education works.  Really, both are only interested in a tiny corner of higher education: the few dozen highly selective institutions (mostly private) that reject all but a tiny fraction of the students that apply to them.

I didn’t think much of Rigg’s piece.  Neither am I much inclined to agree with Hill, despite her credentials.  I was especially struck by this assertion from her.

I would argue that prestige is closely related to the quality of the program and of the students who attend an institution, which in turn depends importantly if not perfectly on how much is being spent per student, and not so much on price.

It sure looks to me as if she asserts that rather than argues that proposition.  I take arguing a proposition to mean offering evidence or reasons or both for thinking it true.  But I don’t see her doing anything more than taking this proposition as a premise, an assumption.  (Of course it’s a brief piece; perhaps she’s offered reasons or evidence elsewhere.)

It does not strike me as a proposition I’d accept as a premise, and I’m pretty sure that there simply isn’t any evidence that “quality” and “prestige” are closely correlated.

We’d have to begin, wouldn’t we, by defining “the quality of the program.”  I’ll take quality to mean “more and better student learning that results from the program.”  It’s hard for me to see how you could take it to be anything else.  I take “prestige” to mean “held in esteem by potential students” who clamor for access.  So do we have evidence that those institutions with higher “prestige” have higher program quality?

I’m unaware of any such evidence.  Actually, to the degree we have developed measures of student learning (CLA, NSSE, etc.) I’m mostly aware that those institutions that have high prestige do not use such measures, and if they do, do not disclose any data derived from those measures.

You could say that “prestige” simply means “program quality,” but then Hill isn’t saying anything at all; her assertion becomes a tautology. I take her to be making a strong claim, and then not offering any support for it.  It certainly is an important question whether those institutions with high prestige are also the most effective institutions at inducing student learning (that is, also have high program quality).  But it is an empirical question.

One reason knowing whether this relationship is true is important has to do with her next step: “which in turn depends importantly if not perfectly on how much is being spent per student, and not so much on price.”  She’s saying that there is a linear correlation between how much institutions spend and how much quality they have.

As we work on improving higher education in this country, as we work on having a much higher percentage of young people complete higher education degrees, it will be important to find out whether we can deliver high quality at lower cost.  But Hill is saying that higher cost providers are the higher quality providers.  And again she’s asserting that, not providing any evidence.

Of the three, “prestige” is not the important variable here: “quality” and “cost” are.  Prestige is a distraction.  We simply must look at the evidence about whether “quality” (student learning) can be reliably delivered at lower cost.  And that begins with taking seriously efforts to measure or assess student learning outcomes.

Both Riggs and Hill drag Earlham into their discussions, but use the college just as an example of a lower cost provider.  I’ll try not to take too much offense at that.  But at Earlham I think we are seriously trying to provide more quality for less cost; we certainly are doing a great deal to assess whether our students are learning.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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