How to Get Criminals to Seek a Side Door

I vowed I’d not write about Varsity Blues, but this thought keeps nagging me and I feel a little guilt for not pointing it out to you. You might not have a greedy coach or a side door into your admissions office, but here’s the horrifying part you played in the VB debacle.

Granted, VB is not entirely your fault. You didn’t try to sneak students in. You didn’t set up the scam. You didn’t break laws. But you are partially to blame.

Your behaviors suggest to customers that “prestige” matters when selecting a college or university. You may do this subconsciously, but every time you try to mirror a school that may be higher on the food chain rather than being your wonderfully distinctive self, you reinforce the myth that there are better alternatives than your school.

The horror in this is the influence you are wielding in achieving the very thing you most despise: making higher education a commodity. By working so hard to be like Harvard, you tell your customers that Harvard is the yardstick. And when you do that, it tells your customers that there are many ways to get an education and you just happen to be one of many. You have not set up a monopoly that is shaped to your institution. And that makes people believe that any ol’ school will do. While we abhor what Aunt Becky and her colleagues did, we still behave in ways that are antithetical to our own missions. We measure by false standards.

While I’m at it, US News is also part to blame. Their rankings are misleading. Their rankings are, no doubt, true based on the criteria they’ve set as quality measures. Yet these are false standards that lead the public, especially prospective students, to a short list of institutions for which they may or may not be well-suited.

Okay, even our own higher education media has to share blame, too. They’re insistent on following a very short list of institutions as indicators of the entire higher ed industry. Not fair. And their news becomes national news. And national news turns into public opinion.

What is prestige anyway? And how to do you get on that list? What does it take for criminals to want a sidedoor to your institution?

I don’t want to be a fatalist, but I will be for a minute to make a point. Look up “prestige” in your Merriam-Webster. Do it now. It’s just a few clicks away. I’ll wait.

I hope you noted that prestige is all in the mind. It’s not necessarily a real thing (“perception is reality” notwithstanding). It’s all opinion, not fact. The difference between your school and the one you call prestigious, however, has some facts that customers love and make it difficult for you to compete.

  1. Most of the schools identified as prestigious are older than you. They clearly have a head start, meaning we’ve had longer time to know them, memorize their names, and hear about them. Really, Harvard has a couple hundred years on most of you reading this. You can’t discount that advantage. You will never catch up. Acknowledge that, but don’t pretend or suggest you have a chance of comparing yourself on that measure.
  2. Most of the colleges and universities on the prestigious list have such large endowments, it makes yours almost appear cute. Those endowments, if their owners elect to draw on them, make incredible resources easily available. That money allows them to implement fairly quickly, add and subtract readily, improve attractiveness easily and even allows mistakes. Unless you have a connection to Warren or Bill, it’s unlikely you can emulate those schools on that measure or depend on your resources for wins.
  3. Because they’ve had years of advantage, prestigious schools have established networks of alumni that, generally speaking, outnumber yours (though places like University of Central Florida may be able to catch up). The advantage for word-of-mouth alone is sufficient to help shape opinion in ways you may not be able to duplicate. On top of that, their lifespan has allowed their alumni to become captains of industry and power brokers before your alumni ever entered the workforce. The prestigious schools have developed habits of knowing and attracting their own while you may be still trying to figure out who “your own” are.
  4. For employers, the prestigious schools represent a shortcut. Based on opinions alone, it would be easier to recruit at named schools everyone knows. (“Harvard? I’ve heard of that. Must be good.”) And those fabulous alumni advocate for their own. Do yours?
  5. For students, (and here’s where the rubber hits the road) prestige offers a ticket to ride. For all the reasons I’ve just listed, a prestigious institution is a badge that serves as the best TSA pass ever. You can just walk in without having to prove yourself.
  6. Oh, one more important factor. Every one of these prestigious schools offers a damn good education and student experience. Top drawer faculty. Cutting edge technologies. Respected programs. Often beautiful campuses in desirable locations (not always).

Endeavoring to match these “prestige” indicators will be outside your reach. You can’t change the date of your founding. You likely can’t build a sizable endowment to reach heights of these schools, at least not overnight. You can’t grow your alumni network fast enough. And you can’t pick up your campus and drop it on some more desirable site.

But here’s what you can do:

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.