Chapter 7: The Cost of Higher Education’s Pursuit of Status

by Troy D. Paino, J.D., Ph.D.

Posted on February 06, 2022

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I suffer from panic attacks. They typically happen in the middle of the night and are triggered by a lost sense of control. This past year has been a challenge for worriers like me. The COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and an extraordinary political season that culminated in the January 6, 2021 attack on Capitol Hill caused even the most confident, experienced, and successful among us to wonder if they could effectively lead through the chaos. Everything felt out of control. 

Ironically, the uncertainty of this past year offered an opportunity for self-reflection and collegiality that has helped me discover greater equanimity. I discovered meditation as an important exercise in managing stress and anxiety, and the sudden disruption of the normal day-to-day routines offered clarity into personal and professional priorities. Finally, our collective vulnerabilities created space for honest conversations with our campuses, presidential colleagues, and, maybe most importantly, ourselves. In isolation, I found community. 

Serving as a university president the past 11 years has offered an endless loop of anxiety triggers. In leading two public universities, I most notably felt trapped by a system of rewards that run counter to my own values. In particular, American higher education’s obsession with status and the high cost associated with trying to achieve it. 

It is true that higher education is not alone in the constant pursuit of status. In fact, many economists and anthropologists describe it as the defining condition of a free-market economy where individuals are driven to acquire more than they need to signal power and privilege. This impulse drives the concentration of individual and institutional wealth. 

The pursuit of status intensified over the last 40 years as our country turned away from the more egalitarian impulses of the Great Depression, World War II, and Great Society (1930-60s) and toward the low-tax, anti-regulatory, supply-side economics of the Reagan Revolution and beyond. John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society diagnosed this phenomenon as early as 1958. The manufactured desires of individuals and institutions drive the concentration of wealth that prevents the effective allocation of resources to address societal problems even amid abundance. 

As I became more familiar with what drives decision making in higher education, I became disillusioned by the incentives that drove many institutional priorities and investments.  

As I became more familiar with what drives decision making in higher education, I became disillusioned by the incentives that drove many institutional priorities and investments. Shortly after becoming a university president over a decade ago, I started tilting at windmills in an effort to change the influence of these manufactured desires. I am not sure if I fully understood the source of my frustration, but I knew that obsessing over some U.S. News & World Report ranking was no way to lead an institution of higher learning. It was not until later that I fully realized that higher education had become a victim of what Daniel Markovits describes as “the meritocracy trap” and Michael J. Sandel refers to as “the tyranny of merit.” Merit, of course, serving as the coin of the realm in higher education’s endless pursuit of status. Those deemed most meritorious attend the wealthiest and most selective schools. 

David F. Larbaree in A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) described some of the unique qualities of the American system of higher education. Subject to the pressures and rewards of a relatively free market, universities operate in a system that values institutional autonomy over collaboration. It also demands an allocation of resources aimed at deepening the institutional engagement of key constituencies—students, alumni, and donors—responsible for supplying much-needed operating revenue. This is why athletics became so central to higher education’s business model. 

Higher education also turned to status as an effective way to improve market share and deepen constituent engagement. Over time, particularly during the past 40 years, the social benefits of attending college varied depending on which school one attended. Ironically, as college attendance became more democratic, the value of where you attended, and not just if you attended, became more important. For many, gaining admittance into a highly selective school that offers the right social network is more important than the quality of education received. This process of social sorting has created a stratified system of higher education that mirrors our country’s social and economic inequality. 

Dr. Larabee, a professor at Stanford University, believes this so-called mess of a system is responsible for creating the greatest universities in the world and should be admired for its responsiveness to an ever-changing society. For those attending or working at the relatively few highly selective and well-resourced institutions, it is easy to see why you would see the benefits of such a system. I assume Jeff Bezos is also pleased with the incentives and rewards of a free market economy. There is no question that a competitive market can drive innovation and a pursuit of excellence, but I would contend that this mess has actually created a bigger mess for all concerned, even for the fortunate few who get to attend one of the most selective schools. 

Higher education has proudly relied on “merit” as a worthy value. It proudly claims to reward individuals based on talent and hard work and not inherited wealth or social status. What could be more egalitarian than that, right? The problem, of course, is that those with resources have learned how to game the system, horde educational opportunity, and inflame the resentment of the working and middle classes. The challenges of educating our citizenry, necessary both for a vibrant economy and democracy, does not stem from the lack of resources; it is a product of how those resources are invested in the education of a relative few. Our system of higher education reflects the manufactured desires of the winners, causing an ineffective allocation of resources to meet society’s biggest needs. 

Our system of higher education reflects the manufactured desires of the winners, causing an ineffective allocation of resources to meet society’s biggest needs.  

The pandemic has thus far further stratified higher education. Applications to the most selective institutions skyrocketed, fueled in part by the elimination of standardized testing as a requirement for admission, while more open-access institutions like community colleges saw their enrollment and revenues fall. It is no wonder so many schools allocate resources to appear more like the elite. Higher education is a marketplace that rewards status, and a school’s status is directly related to a school’s wealth and the number of applicants it can reject. The U.S. News & World Report college rankings have become a proxy for status, and schools have, for over a generation, used its dubious criteria as a strategy for resource allocation. Even relatively impoverished schools allocate scarce resources to move up the ladder, redirecting precious institutional resources toward merit aid or the construction of facilities that have a very loose relation to educating students. This is higher education’s version of being caught in the meritocracy trap, and it predicts death (or at least a slow march of doing more with less) for institutions that otherwise serve critically important missions for their students and communities. If your school prominently advertises a college ranking on its webpage or recruitment materials, it is likely caught in this trap. 

Higher education’s blind faith in merit and the use of selectivity and college rankings as a proxy for status serves as an obstacle to our pursuit of a more educated citizenry. Those in the working-class and middle-class see the hypocrisy and resent the elite’s hubris that academic achievement is all a product of hard work and talent. As Sandel writes, the meritocracy higher education defends and promotes “invites the winners to consider their success their own doing and the losers to feel that those on top look down with disdain” (Sandel, 5). Scandals like Varsity Blues only affirm the suspicion that the system is rigged. As a result, this stratified system undermines faith in an important democratic institution. It also offers false promises to those who are able to enter into higher education’s meritocracy. The constant pursuit of manufactured desires has put a strain on the mental health of all concerned. This toxic brew of hubris, desire, and resentment has made it increasingly difficult to promote the common good and has opened the door to demagogues who can exploit those alienated from this system of rewards. 

Although nobody would confuse me with an optimist, I am not without hope. After all, presidents of universities who have lost hope should step aside to let someone else take on the challenge of this moment. The pandemic, racial reckoning, social inequality, and political dysfunction of this past year offer an opportunity for self-correction. This hope is built on my faith in the people who have chosen higher education as their life’s work, most colleges’ and universities’ ability to adapt, and a reawakening of our collective responsibility to promote the common good. While I am certain that many of the problematic features of our status-obsessed system of higher education will remain, I see signs that leaders are recognizing the need to turn away from some of the more perverse incentives eroding the public’s trust. 

Every profession attracts unscrupulous individuals driven by ego, power, and privilege, but most in higher education are committed to improving the world through education. I have found that most of my presidential colleagues are like me, trapped in a competitive system of perverse incentives who would rather spend their time focused on access, equity, education, and opportunity. Some of the most fruitful conversations with my presidential colleagues have occurred since the spring of 2020. The pandemic created an incentive to collaborate and recognize the interdependency of our efforts. Amid our vulnerability, we relied on one another for advice, resources, and support. As a result, we strengthened those bonds of trust so necessary to work effectively toward a common cause. Initially that common cause was public health and institutional survival, but in time it turned to our collective desire to answer the call of this moment. With a foundation of trust, we began to collaborate in ways I have not experienced during my career. 

I have found that most of my presidential colleagues are like me, trapped in a competitive system of perverse incentives who would rather spend their time focused on access, equity, education, and opportunity.  

The pandemic revealed the need to redirect more resources to the neediest students and institutions who serve students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds. Although there were still plenty of stories about large donations to the wealthiest schools, it was wonderful to celebrate significant private gifts to historically black colleges and universities and community colleges. State and federal funding also privileged those with the greatest need. The pandemic more clearly revealed systemic inequities that contribute to the current resentment and lack of trust in our important democratic institutions, so these private and public investments could be the beginning of a self-correction. Or, it could be a momentary blip on the way to greater inequality in our system; only time will tell. 

Many state leaders, including those in the Commonwealth of Virginia, talk a lot about allocating public dollars to meet the demands of the market. Since Amazon made Virginia the home of its second worldwide headquarters, politicians of both parties found common ground in the need to invest considerable public dollars toward enhancing the tech-talent pipeline. Giving students the skills to succeed in a technology-infused 21st century economy is critically important and a part of higher education’s responsibility, but providing a trained labor force for a behemoth global corporation is secondary to higher education’s primary purpose of providing a liberally educated citizenry. Preparing future workers for Amazon, the modern symbol of manufactured desire, might be a necessary component of what we do, but it is modest progress at best in meeting society’s greatest needs. Let us aspire to greater things. A far more important investment would be in the preparation, support, and retention of committed and high-quality preschool and K-12 teachers, for example. 

I have no crystal ball to predict the future, and I recognize that we stand in a moment that could take us down the road of either more or less equity in our system of higher education. I will stand on the side of hope that we will witness the declining influence of college rankings and other destructive ways higher education pursues status. Instead of mimicking the likes of Harvard and Stanford, leaders can become even more focused on how their institution can uniquely contribute to meeting society’s needs, and in so doing discover ways to collaborate with other schools whose missions are complementary. The free market undoubtedly drives innovation and creates affluence, but our democracy can only survive if it is also supported by an economy committed to the common good. The pandemic has reminded us of this fact, and higher education would be wise to take advantage of this moment. If we continue to travel down a path paved by manufactured desire, I am afraid for many it is the road to perdition. 

Works Referenced

Galbraith, John Kenneth, The Affluent Society, New York, NY, Houghton Mifflin, 1958. 

Larabee, David F., A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Markovits, Daniel, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, New York, NY, Penguin Press, 2019. 

Sandel, Michael J., The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York, NY, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.