The market's the devil, and we're about to sell our soul

February 4, 2005

US college admissions are being skewed by commercial values, warns Lloyd Thacker, and the outcome could be catastrophic

If I don't get into a top-ranked college, I'll have to go to a public university. I will be stupid," complains a US high-school student.

"We are all lying in order to improve our college's rank," confesses the dean of a highly ranked US college.

"There are more freshmen than ever, more dropouts than ever and more consultants than ever - something is terribly wrong," confides the vice-president of a prominent enrolment management firm.

The commercialisation of US college admissions has created a crisis in the higher education system by undermining educational values. Policies and practices once formulated according to educational criteria have been supplanted by private-sector mechanisms that focus on the bottom line.

Billions of dollars have been made by industries involved in this transformation and billions more have been redirected by colleges from projects with an educational aim to those serving marketing goals.

The impact is alarming and it is one that should concern the UK, where similar market forces are taking hold. In societies whose customs and values are increasingly being determined and defined by private-sector commercial norms, educational leaders have a unique obligation to resist inappropriate commercial influences and to defend and champion the unique role of higher education in shaping culture. Unfortunately, we have yet to witness such a concerted and authoritative response from established educational agencies and organisations.

Signs of a growing discrepancy between educational values and commercially driven practices are, however, increasingly prevalent, particularly in the US. They include the growing impact of the ranking industry on nearly every aspect of US college admissions - from how colleges manage their institutional image to how students and parents manage college planning.

The rising obsession with quantification and false precision, of which ranking is but one example, skews everything from how colleges are judged to be "successful" to the nature of learning and decision-making.

Commercialisation has also led to a radical shift in the use of financial aid for students. No longer is the primary focus on meeting student needs, but on serving institutional self-interest. Hence the threefold increase over the past five years in merit-based scholarship money awarded on the basis of factors that could increase a college's ranking, such as aptitude test scores. Meanwhile, need-based aid has decreased. Coupled with increasing competition for institutions to be selective, this has served to widen social inequalities in higher education. The exaggerated "tiering" of colleges has led to a clustering of high incomes, high test scores, fortunate kids and excessive media interest in a small group of colleges.

At America's 146 most selective colleges, only 3 per cent of the students hail from the bottom income quartile, while 74 per cent come from the top income quartile.

The transformation of education into a product and the student into a consumer by the use of strategies to package, position, price and promote education has also had a damaging effect. "What is it you want? - we will give it to you" has supplanted "this is what we have and why it is good for you" as the dominant operational credo for colleges angling for "the right students" - increasingly those who are good at "playing the game" and working the system and have come up through secondary schools where everything from curricula to grading has been influenced by commercial factors. This has created a generation of overstressed, sleep-deprived, performance-driven students who view admissions as a game to be played and acceptance into a name-brand college as a prize to be won.

Indeed, prestige, popularity, comfort, status and "brand" are now marketed as important educational criteria. The focus on students as consumers has also led to a 0 to 300 per cent four-year average increase in college marketing budgets committed to recruiting, the construction of luxury living centres (dorms that include amenities such as single rooms, recreation facilities, private bathrooms and expensive decor), student health centres, campus restaurants and campus beautification.

More damaging is the commercialisation of student data by for-profit agencies, the undue influence of outside agencies in marketing colleges and students, the growth of anxiety-selling by, for example, the test preparation industry and athletic agents, and the evaporation of ethical standards, marked by a rise in lies and falsification by colleges, students and parents.

Some 26 per cent of colleges surveyed by the National Association for College Admission Counselling reported an increase in unethical admission practices during the 2002-03 academic year. In short, the commercial agenda has led to a confusion over what is good for business with what is good for education. This is certainly not a mindset that conscientious educators would back as a model for higher education. The president of a major American research foundation recently told me the story about a delegation of Swedish educators visiting the US to study its system of higher education. During dinner at the end of their tour, the leader of the delegation remarked: "We have only one question: Who is in charge?"

In 2000, during a meeting of the College Board, the US association of schools and colleges, a trustee and college president remarked on an ambitious vice-president's explanation of how the board could profit from delivering "enrolment management" services to colleges: "So, you are giving us the tools to carve each other up." How prophetic that statement has become.

Today, confusion and concern reign, not only about who is in charge, but also about the values that commercially dominated admissions transmit.

"Nobody likes what is going on," comments one college president, "not students, not parents, not college presidents and not deans."

Within this market, can colleges reassert their collective responsibility as trustees of education in a democratic society? At stake is education itself - a process that cannot legitimately be controlled by market forces; one that values student uncertainty, curiosity, self-confidence, imagination and hard work as essential; one that recognises that the indicators and predictors of good education are easy to recognise yet nearly impossible to measure; and one that reveals that good education happens in many places.

While many in higher education are becoming mired in behaviour that undermines this high calling, encouraging signs are emerging. In my book College Unranked , published last year, I invited some professionals to express their concerns about commercial interference in college admissions.

There has been a resounding response. College presidents, admission officials and college counsellors have spoken out about how colleges should look at meeting the needs of students. Their views represent a collective conscience and are prompting a reconsideration of college admissions values. This is a good start and is part of a larger effort to reshape admissions being orchestrated by the Education Conservancy, a non-profit organisation set up to improve the processes for students, colleges and high schools.

For, if current commercial influences are to be overcome, leadership will necessarily emerge in some form of benevolent collusion, most likely among colleges that share many characteristics. There is a tremendous opportunity for this type of leadership. It has been suggested that the history of American higher education can be seen as an ongoing struggle between two often conflicting obligations: a commitment to moral and civic development of a future citizenry inherited from our first universities' founders and churches, and an obligation to train a new generation of productive contributors to the economy. These dual functions remain difficult, if not impossible, to keep in balance and are increasingly affecting higher education around the world in what is becoming a global education market.

The growing influences of institutional pressures and commercialised admission practices indicate a dangerous shift in this balance. It is one that deeply concerns Andrew Delbanco, professor of humanities at Columbia University. He asks: "How far can we go in protecting the bottom line, before the institution we are serving loses its soul?"

As institutions held in public trust, universities and colleges have the obligation and power to do the right thing. The field of college admissions is a valuable testing ground for exercising that power. At stake are the values that will shape the future of education.

Lloyd Thacker is executive director of the Education Conservancy.

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