Arnold Kling  

Academic Lock-in

The European Outlook... The Budget Outlook...

In a polemic I wrote against academic tastes, I raise the question of why top universities remain successful. I suggest,

The nation's top-tier colleges benefit from network and lock-in effects. No single Ivy League undergraduate has the incentive to attend a start-up college, unless a large number do so simultaneously. In many industries in our economy, a fresh new player with a bright idea can make inroads into the market. The academy is highly insulated from that sort of competition.

For Discussion. How does the rate of turnover among top educational institutions compare to the rate of turnover among top corporations?

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Boonton writes:

Universities have a strong sense of conservatism (note the small 'c'). I had a literature professor who told us point blank that we should not worry about reading the 'modern' books (by this he meant Faulkner, Hemmingway, Joyce etc.)...we would all read the 'current' books during our adult lives but this was our one shot to read the ancients since it would be highly unlikely that we would do so later on.

If someone has an excellent grounding in 'the ancients' as well as modern foundations (Shakespear, Joyce, etc.) I don't see how they would approach books like _the Blank Slate_ with a handicap. On the other hand, we know that probably 90% of everything new is crap (but we just can't be 100% sure about which 90%!). I wouldn't be so eager to overturn the cannon just yet.

david foster writes:

It's all about branding. If an employer is impressed that his applicant attended Harvard, it's not usually because he's carefully analyzed what people actually learn at Harvard versus what they learn at Enormous State University. He just has the connection "Harvard=good" in his head. It's actually kind of similar to the fashion industry, in which a person might select a shirt not because of the actual style or materials, but rather because of the brand name....

Randall Parker writes:

Boonton, Cars are a lot newer than horses. Should engineers study horse saddle design rather than car design?

Human nature is coming under the microscope of science. Great literary works no longer have a monopoly of insights into the human condition.

Brad Hutchings writes:

The branding pervades culture. For example, a common refrain that national Sports-Smack-Talk radio host Jim Rome goes into nostalgically is "University of California" vs. "California State University". The lowliest UC Santa Barbara grad is more worthy than the CSU Fullerton valedictorian. Sure, it's just great schtick, but there is a lot of truth in how it plays out in the workplace.

To Arnold's question... The more prestigious educational institutions become anchors of their communities. Sports, entertainment, highly skilled labor supplier, political commentary and activism, local economic studies... Look to the University. While the "company town" has faded from America as decentralization and sprawl have become predominant modes of growth, the University has both enabled and engrained itself into the modes. I look at South Orange County, CA which I've seen grow up in my 16 years here as UC Irvine (my alma mater) has experienced phenominal growth (physical, student body, influence) in that same time. In the same time period, we lost two marine air bases (Lake Forest, where I live, had a lot of military folks when I moved here in 94), and the economic impact has basically been more room to grow.

The thing to remember about the teaching mission of the top-tier colleges is that it's just one of their missions. The thing that a prospective college student needs to evaluate when looking at a top-tier college versus other alternatives is how valuable the wider mission and network effects of the top-tier institution are in conjunction with the academic portion.


Boonton writes:
Human nature is coming under the microscope of science. Great literary works no longer have a monopoly of insights into the human condition.

Errr yea but what does this have to do with anything really? I'm sure the science departments of the Ivy League have moved beyond texts from the 1700's in their science courses.

That's a great TCS piece. Can I add a few things? I think a more important distinction than new-vs-old may be solid-vs-not-solid. The fact is -- at least where the humanities are concerned -- that kids are being given hardly anything old at all. I'm told that even English majors barely know who Faulkner was these days. On the other hand, the relentlessly new stuff they are being fed is utter crap, tired '60s political propaganda. Perhaps what some of the university chiefs who said they'd like kids to read old stuff really meant is that they'd like to see them read a few solid works rather than the trendy, flimsy things they are reading. But maybe not.

As an English-major Ivy grad from the mid-'70s, can I volunteer one thing that strikes me as underdiscussed when the topic of elite colleges comes up? It's the question of parental ambition. I notice that "kids making choices about where to go to college" is often discussed as though these kids are rational adults, rationally calculating out how they want to lead their lives. I'm sure there's some of that. But one of the things that leaps out at you when you're at these colleges -- well, it leaped out at me -- is how often Ivy kids are living out their parents' dreams and ambitions. In my experience, lots of kids who go to Ivies would be happier at a less highstrung, ego-centric institution -- they're where they are instead hoping to placate their parents. Incidentally, and FWIW, of course: I got an utterly atrocious education at my Ivy. I did OK for myself in the library and at the theater and museum. But the teachers were awful and the institution itself was worse, far more preoccupied with stuffing your ego with a sense that you were special than with actually giving you the tools and information you might need to find your way. (This may not be the case in the harder fields -- engineering, science.) As far as I could tell, what Ivies are determined to turn out isn't well-educated young people, it's "Ivy graduates" -- that's their product, a lot of full-of-themselves, arrogant kids ready to move into certain important positions (and then shower money back on the university that did them these favors). A racket if I ever saw one, and one I'd be thrilled to see more parents and kids wake up to.

Boonton writes:
On the other hand, the relentlessly new stuff they are being fed is utter crap, tired '60s political propaganda. Perhaps what some of the university chiefs who said they'd like kids to read old stuff really meant is that they'd like to see them read a few solid works rather than the trendy, flimsy things they are reading. But maybe not.

How much of that insightful reading list that Arnold proposed will be considered silly propaganda in 2040? Will Diamond Age, Spirtual Machines, etc. all read like insightful tomes from our little Age of Reason or will they seem silly and way off base? I guess only time will tell :)

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Alumni probably have the greatest impact in maintaining the reputation of an academic institution. They, more than immediate Graduates, insist on respect for the institution they attended. They are the source of financial support, unfunded expansion of the myth of the institution, and send their own kids. lgl

John Thacker writes:

Professor Kling, here's another point to consider:

Does being in an area, academia, where the network and lock-in effects are so strong, and turnover between the top competitors so rare, cause academics to routinely underestimate the potential and actual turnover that occurs in the business world? Is this a further cause of left-wing bias among academics-- that they (understandably) don't trust the market to create turnover since turnover is so rare in their industry?

Bernard Yomtov writes:


The data this is based on is ridiculous. The IAUP consists of the presidents of about 500 universities worldwide, maybe 200 of which are in the US. According to the report you cite:

"The question was posed by Dr. J. Michael Adams, President of Fairleigh Dickinson University, to the members of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) which has about 500 members worldwide. About a quarter of the members responded."

So we have the responses of a self-selected group of about 125 presidents. We don't know how many are American, so drawing conclusions about American higher education is silly. Further, a glance at the membership list reveals very few of what are considered important American universities. No Ivies. Only a handful of the major state universities. Few prestigious non-Ivy schools (no Duke, Chicago, MIT, Emory, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Rice, Stanford, etc. ). Look for yourself.

This survey tells us nothing about American higher education. You would, or should, fail a statistics student who drew serious conclusions from this sort of "data."

Eric Krieg writes:

>>How much of that insightful reading list that Arnold proposed will be considered silly propaganda in 2040?

I wonder, too. Obviously, Arnold's reading list is very 2004. What would his list have been in 1994? How many of those books from 1994 would still be relevant today?

Remember "Megatrends"? Newt was a Megatrend evangelist, which is why I read it in '95. I really should go back and see how many of the trends have fizzled.

I am a nanotechnology skeptic. I will believe it when I see it.

Monte writes:

The only commonality underlying turnover rates at top universities vs. top corporations is compensation. Beyond that, the relationship becomes tenuous, so that a comparison between the two is not all that instructive, it seems to me.

Compensation aside, the more prestigious universities attempt to attract the best and brightest faculty by offering space and start-up packages for getting their research underway and qualifying for outside funding, as well as time to write books and articles that will earn them tenure and a reputation. Faculty members also prefer campus cultures that feel compatible. They want inspiring colleagues both in their department and in related fields. For faculty devoted to teaching, student intelligence and drive is appealing. Alternatively, major corporations entice the more highly skilled and educated with promises of frequent promotions, professional development, and work-life balance. Work-related stress resulting from concerns about job security and expectations also figures prominently in a star employee’s decision to remain or seek out more attractive opportunities.

Nevertheless, I suspect attrition rates among academicians are considerably lower than that of corporate professionals given that the former are highly insulated from competition.

Bernard Yomtov writes:


I share your implied skepticism about Arnold's list of books. Let's give things a little time to prove their worth.

cobden writes:

The discussion of lock in misses two things:

1) The size of the endowments of the top universities and
2) The amounts of money that come from being good in science.

The two are related. No matter how much blather there is in the soft fields, the top schools do well in tech and professional subjects. So the money (from grants, alumni, tuition, etc.) continues to flow in. That feeds a lot of stupidness in the softer subjects and sustains reputations of schools that otherwise might sink if all their graduates only did lit crit. And so long as the top 20 or so stay rich, it's hard to catch up.

Look, imagine how long even Harvard would last as a bankable degree if ALL their students graduated in drama, postmodern linguistics, and feminist studies? The fact is that for the sciences, law, economics, and business, the top schools are still truly the best in every objective sense of the word.

However, I think that if Gates, for example, were to establish a 15 billion dollar fund to start a top new super elite school in the Pacific Northwest, that institution could do well if it started small, had a limited set of subjects, gave scholarships to top students regardless of income, and bought top faculty like crazy. Indeed, that is partly how Stanford and Caltech muscled their way into the top ranks in the postwar era.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top