Universities and the Prestige Economy

BY CARL BANKSTON III

Student writers at the Boston University Daily Free Press have recently expressed their concern over celebrity Professor Isabel Wilkerson, who reportedly receives a hefty salary and rarely finds the time to fit showing up for class into her busy book promotion schedule.  The celebrity professor is just one of the by-products of the strange world of higher education economics.  As increasing numbers of Americans have obtained college degrees in recent years, students have sought to differentiate themselves by attending the most prestigious institutions that will admit them. At the same time, both universities and public officials have been successful in convincing the American public (and perhaps even convincing themselves) that investing in a college degree is one of the most valuable investments one can make and that it will be worth whatever one pays for it. Easy loan policies have made it possible to borrow heavily for this purpose.  As a result, college tuition costs have risen at a rate that makes the housing bubble look tiny (see my earlier discussion of the mortgage and student loan bubble and the fascinating illustration of tuition vs. housing costs by Gregory White and Kamelia Angelova).  Tuition costs have risen so rapidly precisely because colleges over the past few decades have experienced no pressure to keep costs down.  In this environment, colleges compete to attract students looking for brand-name distinction not by offering affordable education, or even necessarily good education, but by selling prestige.  This promotes the hiring of celebrities who in some cases may contribute nothing to the schools but recognizable names.


The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?


Copyright © 2011 Carl L. Bankston III.


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