Rank Delusions

by John Quiggin on April 9, 2015

That’s the title of a piece I had in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February. CHE is paywalled, but they kindly agree to let me republish here, after a suitable interval. The article (or at least a near final version) is over the fold.

Rank Delusions

Every year, U.S. News & World Report, Times Higher Education, and others update university rankings. Reactions are paradoxical. On the one hand, university administrators and faculty members scan the lists for evidence of small movements up or down. On the other hand, everyone knows that the top 10, or 20, or 50 names will be much the same as they have always been.

The Duke sociologist Kieran Healy points to a four-tier classification of leading universities made in 1911, and compares it to the most recent U.S. News ranking. Of the top 20 universities in the ranking today, 16 were in the top class in 1911, one (Notre Dame) was in the second class, and three (Duke, Rice, and Caltech) had not yet been established under their current names.

The United States is not unusual in this respect. In most countries with an established higher-ed tradition, the list of high-status universities has changed little over decades or even centuries. There have been some modest shifts in the relative status of different kinds of universities (for example, private versus public in the United States), and there are some impressive new institutions in Asia and other areas of rapid economic growth, but the impacts are marginal.

Broadly speaking, the 1911 list would not raise any eyebrows if it were used as the basis for the next U.S. News ranking. For those seeking to answer the question “What makes a great university?” the answer appears to be “having been great 100 years ago.”

Now compare the Dow Jones Industrial Average for 1911, which included such companies as the American Smelting and Refining Company (now Asarco), U.S. Rubber (now Uniroyal), and U.S. Steel. Some of those companies have vanished altogether, and others have survived as subsidiaries of a larger enterprise, but only General Electric is still included in the Dow Jones index. Most of today’s Dow Jones companies did not even exist in 1911.

What accounts for the remarkable stability of university rankings in comparison to the instability of big business, and for that matter, other nonprofits? More important, what implications does this have for university management and higher-education policy?

Several features of universities are important in explaining these outcomes. First, unlike other enterprises, universities almost never die and rarely merge. The 14 universities that formed the Association of American Universities, in 1900, are all still in existence, as are all those admitted since then.

Second, and directly related, universities are what are called, in the literature on industrial organization, “single-plant firms.” The vast majority have one (or at most two) main campuses, with a few peripheral offshoots. Apparent exceptions like the University of California system are in reality a set of distinct universities, linked only by notionally shared governance.

Those structural facts put an upper bound on the feasible size of a university. A single campus can’t accommodate more than about 40,000 undergraduate students without running into diseconomies of scale, such as constraints on the size of lecture halls. The biggest state universities reached that size in the 1970s, and their enrollments have remained broadly stable ever since. Elite private universities operate on a much smaller scale, typically 3,000 to 5,000 students, and most have maintained that size since the 1950s.

Taken together, those facts rule out many of the mechanisms by which markets reward success and punish failure. A successful university doesn’t typically create new campuses or even greatly expand its enrollments. (Some American universities are attempting to test that proposition by establishing offshore campuses such as those of Yale in Singapore and NYU in the UAE. If only they’d learned from the experience of their Australian counterparts who followed the same path in the 1990s, with results ranging from disappointing to disastrous.) Conversely, poor performance may create stresses of various kinds, but almost never leads universities to close down, or even to radically contract.

As a result, growth in the university system has occurred primarily through the creation of new universities, or through the upgrading of vocational-training institutions such as teachers’ colleges. At least initially, the new entries are almost always at the lower levels of the status hierarchy. The creation of a new research university, such as the University of California at Merced, is a rare event.

Those facts are enough to explain part of the difference between the relatively stable ranking of universities and the ever-changing rankings of top companies. With no departures, and limited possibilities for growth, the only way that universities can change their ranking is through a change in the (perceived) quality of their research and teaching. This is necessarily a slow process.

Moreover, universities are nonprofit enterprises that nonetheless generate substantial operating surpluses. In the absence of shareholders, the surplus generated by a university is available to improve the university’s standing, for example by hiring star professors, establishing new research centers, or adding facilities to attract students.

But while those structural features explain why the relative status of universities doesn’t change much from year to year or decade to decade, they don’t explain the near-constancy of the rankings over scales of a century or more.

In statistical terms, we can think of university status as a process characterized by mean reversion. That is, if a high-status university performs poorly for some time, perhaps because of poor leadership or bad hiring decisions, it is likely to recover the lost ground over time. Conversely, a lower-status university that does well for a few years will find it difficult to maintain its enhanced status.

The crucial factor in explaining mean reversion is the existence of exceptionally durable assets of various kinds, the most important of which are human and reputational. A long-established high-status university has a large body of alumni, Ph.D. graduates, former faculty members, and research collaborators. Apart from obvious benefits such as alumni donations, that group can be looked to as a source of legacy students, opportunities for graduate placements, and senior hires keen to return to their former affiliation.

One way to test that idea is to look for other examples of status competition where rankings remain stable over long periods. An interesting case is that of European soccer leagues. Unlike American sport leagues, these mostly lack a draft or salary cap. Mobility is supposed to be achieved through a system of promotion and relegation, in which the winners in lower-division competitions move up, while the bottom-placed teams in the higher division move down. In practice, however, promoted teams usually struggle, while those relegated one year often return to the higher division the next.

Moreover, while most teams are privately owned, few of the owners seek to extract profits. Rather, returns are plowed back into the team and used to attract better players. That in turn produces winning records, which attract more fans and more revenue. Once attracted, fans, like alumni in the university context, are commonly lifelong assets.

Not surprisingly, the results are the same as in competition between universities. Most of the European leagues, notably including those of Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, are dominated by the same two or three clubs, decade after decade. The Scottish competition provides a typical, if somewhat extreme, example. In 118 years of competition, two clubs (Rangers and Celtic, known collectively as the Old Firm) have won 99 times between them.

The Scottish League also provides a good example of mean reversion. A financial scandal in 2012 led to the Rangers’ being declared insolvent and ejected from the competition. A reformed club was admitted to the Third Division (roughly the equivalent of the bottom tier of minor-league baseball), but with its top management, most of its money, and many star players gone. Crucially, however, the new Rangers retained the membership and fan base of the old one. It is rapidly ascending the status ladder and is set to resume its rivalry with Celtic in a season or two.

What should we learn from all this?

Most obviously, there is not much point in worrying about university rankings, whoever may issue them. Differences from year to year in a given ranking, or between different rankings, will inevitably be dominated by random noise. But even if changes in rankings reflect actual differences in performance, mean reversion ensures that this will mostly wash out over time. For the kinds of decisions for which rankings should matter, such as which university to attend, year-to-year variations are of no significance.

Second, it seems unlikely that university presidents, or other top managers, can make much difference in the way their institutions perform. As much as a decade at the helm is still simply too short to produce any sustained shift in rankings. Conversely, the departure of presidents and other top administrators, even under a cloud of disgrace, seems to have little or no impact on the status of the institutions concerned.

But the big question is whether the stable hierarchy is beneficial or harmful to the teaching and research mission of the university system as a whole. If harmful, what can be done about it?

As regards research, the advantages of stratification are obvious. The institutions at the top of the status hierarchy have continued to produce the bulk of research in leading journals, to earn Nobel Prizes and similar awards, and so on. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases where this self-perpetuating elite might benefit from the challenge of outside perspectives.

For undergraduate education, American experience has shown that a highly stratified system works poorly. Competition for status encourages high-ranked institutions to restrict enrollments and to provide a high-quality experience to a small number of students, which inevitably implies high tuition fees. Since new entrants to the system inevitably enter with lower status, a steep and stable hierarchy implies that an increasing proportion of students attend poorly funded institutions that struggle to provide a quality education.

What, if anything, can be done to flatten the hierarchy and increase mobility within it? Sporting leagues have adopted solutions such as salary caps and draft systems for the recruitment of new players. Analogs could be imagined in the university context, but seem unlikely to command much support.

A more plausible response is a shift in public-financing priorities. If, as we’ve seen, success or failure in the status race is largely preordained, financing systems designed to reward and “incentivize” success are misconceived. Support should be allocated on the basis of need rather than used to amplify historical advantage. In this respect, President Obama’s initiative to expand access to community college is a step in the right direction.

John Quiggin is a fellow in economics at the University of Queensland; a columnist for The Australian Financial Review; a blogger for Crooked Timber; and the author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Prince­ton University Press, 2010).

{ 70 comments }

1

TM 04.10.15 at 1:01 am

“The United States is not unusual in this respect. In most countries with an established higher-ed tradition, the list of high-status universities has changed little over decades or even centuries.”

I’m not so sure that the concept of “high-status universities” is applicable in most countries outside of the Anglo world.

2

Andrew Smith 04.10.15 at 2:45 am

I’m not so sure that the concept of “high-status universities” is applicable in most countries outside of the Anglo world.

Definitely in Japan there is a similar attitude, with University of Tokyo right at the top.

3

JanieM 04.10.15 at 3:00 am

The impression I have from my son, who has lived in China for nearly four of the past seven years and taught at two universities (English at the first one, law at the second), is that the concept is alive and well there, too. Obsessively so in certain circles…is my impression.

4

Tom West 04.10.15 at 4:22 am

The institutions at the top of the status hierarchy have continued to produce the bulk of research in leading journals, to earn Nobel Prizes and similar awards, and so on.

I think there’s a case for strongly recognized elite institutions.

In many areas where an objective evaluation of value is nearly impossible, a strong, universal status hierarchy allows all participants to establish value in a manner shared by all participants. Bereft of the hierarchy, value judgement can often end up all over the place, which can heavily diminish external respect for the field, and in the worst case, can call the worth of the entire field into question.

I suspect most people (and certainly most institutions) prefer the illusion of certainty over the reality of randomness. Unchanging rankings that conform to expectations help satisfy that preference.

5

Ben 04.10.15 at 4:25 am

Tom West, can you provide examples for the argument in the second sentence of your second paragraph?

6

Sebastian H 04.10.15 at 6:03 am

“For undergraduate education, American experience has shown that a highly stratified system works poorly. Competition for status encourages high-ranked institutions to restrict enrollments and to provide a high-quality experience to a small number of students, which inevitably implies high tuition fees. Since new entrants to the system inevitably enter with lower status, a steep and stable hierarchy implies that an increasing proportion of students attend poorly funded institutions that struggle to provide a quality education.”

For the elite this is surely a feature, not a bug.

7

PlutoniumKun 04.10.15 at 6:56 am

Interesting and well argued (although I suspect fans of Leeds United wouldn’t agree with the football analogy).

I wonder if this applies to institutions in smaller countries who have to compete internationally? Here in Ireland, two Universities – TCD and UCD in Dublin are ‘just about’ big enough to compete and regularly get into international top 100’s. However, both have slipped out as a consequence of cutbacks after the crash of the Celtic Tiger. I’m not connected with either, but its does seem that for both, their relative places in international hierarchies are far more dynamic and not in a good way. When placed relatively high, they gain a major advantage in attracting lucrative international undergrads and high quality post-grads, not to mention being able to attract better staff from around the world. When they slip down the rankings, the opposite happens of course and that becomes very hard to reverse. It has regularly been argued in Ireland that investment should focus on these top institutions in order to solidify their position internationally (its even been proposed to merge them for precisely this reason, although for historical reasons thats probably unthinkable).

So while Johns arguments make good sense for third level educational policy within large countries with a network of universities, perhaps the opposite applies for smaller countries operating in an international market? Just a thought.

8

dsquared 04.10.15 at 11:11 am

although I suspect fans of Leeds United wouldn’t agree with the football analogy

Or fans of Nottingham Forest, or Wimbledon, or even Blackburn Rovers. Of the top five teams in the Premier League 1994/5 season, only two are still there twenty years later (Liverpool and Manchester United). The current top ten contains two teams (Swansea and Stoke) that weren’t in the top tier in 1994/5, and one of the current top 5 (Manchester City) fell as far as the third tier at its lowest point between 1994/5 and today. There’s really a lot more turnover in football teams than universities.

9

Haftime 04.10.15 at 11:49 am

Dsquared – I think you’re right that football clubs fluctuate much more than universities, but they are pretty stable I think? Football clubs barely ever disappear.

Nottingham Forest have never been lower than the 3rd tier in their history, and have had substantial periods in both the 1st and 2nd tier.
Blackburn Rovers have spent 1 season in the third tier in their history.
Leeds have spent 3 seasons in the third tier in their history.

Wimbledon are much more dynamic, and probably a more powerful counter example.
Wimbledon were, up until 1977, a non-league team, had a brief spell in the top division and now are in the 3rd tier (MK Dons), 4th tier (AFC wimbledon).
Watford might be another interesting example – they’re a club that has permanently improved their lot.

I guess to understand this better would need a bit more data & analysis.

10

TM 04.10.15 at 12:52 pm

Further to 1: In a system where higher education is publicly funded and each institution gets a roughly constant amount per student, as is common in parts of Europe, it is hard to see how a strong hierarchy between institutions could develop, unless of course the intention of creating elite institutions is built into the funding formula. In both cases, there is nothing to explain.

In the US, isn’t there a strong correlation between endowment and ranking, and isn’t that – and the tendency of the rich to continue giving to those who already have – the most obvious explanation for the self-perpetuation of the system?

11

cassander 04.10.15 at 1:47 pm

While this is a good baseline, it seems obvious to me that one should look not at the large number of universities that don’t move around much in status, but the small number that have, up or down. There are three I can think of off the top of my head, Pomona (up), GW (up), and Bryn Mawr (down except for a couple areas.). Unfortunately, the three have virtually nothing in common.

12

Jerry Vinokurov 04.10.15 at 1:48 pm

I cannot prove this, but I am convinced that the USNWR rankings are in fact purposefully constructed in such a way as to reproduce pretty much the rankings extant in 1911.

13

Nick 04.10.15 at 3:24 pm

I like this kind of analysis, but people always perform it on American universities. Why limit yourself to a hundred years of data? If the persistence of ‘elite’ status is real, it should show up in Europe, where universities stretch back more than a thousand years. It would be interesting to apply it to a more volatile country, such as Italy, and see if elite status maintains itself over a long history of political and economic challenges.

14

Tom West 04.10.15 at 3:45 pm

Tom West, can you provide examples for the argument in the second sentence of your second paragraph?

First, I hope it was obvious that I’m not terribly serious about my thesis. It’s mostly a reaction to a lifetime of observation that (1) for most things it’s really hard to objectively measure quality on any but the coarsest of scales and (2) people get very unhappy on the odd occasions when (1) is revealed.

It was also based on my observations as to what happens when groups fail to reach an authoritative consensus on issues upon which reality indicates there probably shouldn’t be one. Often, the funders lose confidence and withdraw. In the absence of elite institutions that we “know” are the best, would public and private funding dry up?

So I was mostly making light that we’re happier when we have an unjustified certainty, and elite institutions provide that certainty.

And yes, I was thinking about academic hiring, where in the absence of an institutional background in which to guide the evaluation of candidates, there’d probably be a lot more nasty apples vs. oranges type faculty battles on who to hire (candidate quality being highly multi-dimensional).

15

TM 04.10.15 at 3:48 pm

I think the question would be whether there exists institutional continuity across all those centuries in any meaningful sense. I don’t think so, not in most cases (Oxbridge maybe?)

“More than a thousand years” is also an exaggeration. In any case, what we might recognize as a University dates only from the 19th century.

16

Marshall 04.10.15 at 5:05 pm

“President Obama’s initiative to expand access to community college is a step in the right direction.”

My experience suggests that expanded access will be counterproductive unless way more attention is paid to quality. Actually I think it would be better to focus on improving the general ed/liberal arts/capital-Education preparation in the high schools, beyond AP ticket-punching.

17

Vasilis Vassalos 04.10.15 at 8:43 pm

Italy is a good example of a system where a uniform state funding scheme has led to a much less stratified university system. Strong departments have developed in various universities – although it seems there is correlation between university size and budget on one hand and the importance of the city/region in which it is located (the proxy presumably being political clout of the local reps). There is also I think stricter hierarchy for universities in the same city.

18

John Quiggin 04.10.15 at 11:41 pm

@Dsquared I guess the policy lesson from English football is that we should encourage Russian billionaires to endow universities.

19

John Quiggin 04.10.15 at 11:48 pm

@Nick The US has more data, and I was writing for a US publication, but I made it clear the point had general validity.

@TM The 19th century is the starting point for the modern university. Even so, having a foundation date before 1800 is a huge advantage, not just for Oxbridge but for the US Ivy League and Paris 1.

@VV Thanks for this on Italy. I’m not sure about Germany. My impression is that stratification is limited there also. Any informed readers able to comment?

20

Vasilis Vassalos 04.11.15 at 12:24 am

BTW, I’m no expert on Italian universities, what I posted is my impression based on interactions with many Italian colleagues and a few discussions about the system. As for Germany, the system was so egalitarian that the German government a few years ago took pains to introduce stratification by identifying Excellent universities and bestowing them with lots of additional funding (thus helping them become even more excellent)

21

TM 04.11.15 at 3:40 am

JQ: When I studied in Germany (where all Universities are run by the respective state except for one Catholic and a handful of private ones, the latter having little relevance), I never for a minute considered the comparative “status” of my University and neither did any of my fellow students. Rankings didn’t exist at the time although they probably now exist and there has been a push towards a more elitist approach (establishment of “centers of research excellence” with EU and state money, stuff like that). There also was no tuition at the time; meanwhile experiments with relatively low tuition rates were started and abandoned in most states.

In the German context, the age of each respective University I think has little consequence because there isn’t really any mechanism that would allow some sort of advantage to accumulate. Most universities were either founded by some prince or king of a territory that doesn’t exist any more, or are recent foundations of the post war states wishing to expand higher education. The universities each have independent status (no “state system”). There is no reason why the state would want to favor one over the others (*). Oxbridge and Paris are different because of (1) long-standing institutional continuity, and probably (2) an intentional policy of promoting stratification. There is no reason why that stratification should happen all by itself, absent such policies. Post-war Germany and others never pursued such a policy (*), the stated goal was universal access.

(*) This is of course not to say there is no stratification in the educational system. There are several functionally defined tiers within higher education, from more academic to more vocational (one should actually count the vocational system itself as part of higher education, although that is rarely done). But there is no perceptible hierarchy within each tier.

22

TM 04.11.15 at 3:49 am

I should add that German universities generally cannot select their students. They are like utilities.

23

hix 04.11.15 at 1:19 pm

“Competition” is mainly pushed by the Bertelsmann Stiftung through another CHE – http://www.che-ranking.de/cms/?getObject=2&getLang=de

There are attempts to decrease equality by factoring in “third party funding” as a thing that gets rewarded with even more money from the government and some discussion to promote “good” universities of applied science to Ph.D. granting institutions while demoting “bad” reserach univerisities.

24

hix 04.11.15 at 1:31 pm

My impression is that TM is too optimistic about Germany. Universities do have lots of freedom to pick students nowadays -_-. The regulations that require admission solely based on gpa in some places are undermined a lot by paragraph jin-jitsu and are only relevant for undergraduate admission anyway. Many Profs so want to indulge themself by picking students based on interviews and other super subjective sytems.

25

Main Street Muse 04.11.15 at 2:09 pm

Of the 500 CEOs within the Fortune 500 companies, there are a number of state and private colleges outside of this list. http://bit.ly/1clhqS5

Rankings matter, of course. But they’re not the be all and end all for a particular individual’s life.

26

Harold 04.11.15 at 3:10 pm

It would be better if US universities were more like utilities.

27

Harold 04.11.15 at 8:21 pm

This is so wrong.

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/04/09/1376096/-Private-Universities-are-Promoting-the-Plutocracy

There ought to be disincentives for selective private primary and high schools as well, IMO, if not outright bans on them.

28

Billikin 04.12.15 at 6:50 pm

“In statistical terms, we can think of university status as a process characterized by mean reversion. That is, if a high-status university performs poorly for some time, perhaps because of poor leadership or bad hiring decisions, it is likely to recover the lost ground over time. Conversely, a lower-status university that does well for a few years will find it difficult to maintain its enhanced status.”

Errr, isn’t that the opposite of mean reversion? Doesn’t it indicate that universities are part of a strongly stratified, or caste, system, which resists movement between strata.

29

John Quiggin 04.13.15 at 1:07 am

@28, It means that each university has a mean status, to which it tends to return.

30

TM 04.13.15 at 3:42 pm

“each university has a mean status”

And what is the causal mechanism determining that “mean status”? Genetics?

hix 24: I haven’t followed too closely the changes of the last 20 years (Bologna etc.). If you have more detailed recent information, please let us know.

31

Shirley0401 04.13.15 at 5:46 pm

@Marshall 04.10.15 at 5:05 pm
“President Obama’s initiative to expand access to community college is a step in the right direction.”
My experience suggests that expanded access will be counterproductive unless way more attention is paid to quality. Actually I think it would be better to focus on improving the general ed/liberal arts/capital-Education preparation in the high schools, beyond AP ticket-punching.
>>>
Rare instance where I’ve actually got some experience. I worked with high school students for years, and the on-the-ground reality is that whenever “expectations” for all students were “raised,” it inevitably results in many different forms of watering-down. The reality is that when we want 100% of students to take/complete/pass something, the standards have to be revised down to allow for kids who lack motivation and/or support and/or stability and/or proper nutrition and/or medicine and/or [insert thing some student somewhere lacks here] to still take/complete/pass that course/test/whatever.
Personally, I find a lot to like about variations of the German model — incentives for those who can, and want to, succeed/excel/achieve, and cascading options for those who don’t make the cut. As much as it pains my lefty heart to admit it, part of the problem with expecting everyone to succeed results in success not meaning a whole lot.
Don’t get me started on AP ticket-punching. The mystifying belief that every child can simultaneously be “accelerated” and/or “above average” has infected the entire middle/upper-middle class population of the last school at which I worked. For many of these parents, a failure of their child to achieve at a level in the top decile is adequate reason to have said child screened for disabilities, considered for special services, and/or enrolled in expensive “enrichment” programs.

32

TM 04.13.15 at 6:57 pm

“the problem with expecting everyone to succeed”

Whose idea was it to equate success with a college/university degree in the first place? This is a very recent phenomenon. How did it happen?

33

John Quiggin 04.13.15 at 10:48 pm

“And what is the causal mechanism determining that “mean status”? Genetics?”

As I said in the OP, the causal mechanism is the historical circumstances of foundation. Harvard’s mean status is high because it was established as an elite institution hundreds of years ago. North-Central State X Community College’s mean status is low because it is neither of those things.

You can do the obvious analogy with genetics and mean reversion if you want, but I’d rather not go there.

34

TM 04.14.15 at 1:39 pm

“the historical circumstances of foundation”

You seriously think funding has nothing to do with it? Hundreds of years ago, elite was imprinted into Harvard’s cultural DNA and it remained ever since all on its own? I don’t mean to be snarky but I wonder whether you have really thought this through.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_colleges_and_universities_in_the_United_States_by_endowment

35

Billikin 04.14.15 at 6:31 pm

John Quiggin: ” [Reversion to the mean] means that each university has a mean status, to which it tends to return.”

Pardon, but such a tendency is not a statistical property which ranked entities typically exhibit. It is something that requires explanation. And, indeed, you offer explanations. But reversion to rank is not something that we should expect.

36

Harold 04.14.15 at 7:44 pm

Harvard was little more than a boarding school until 1840.

37

Harold 04.14.15 at 7:54 pm

Student enrollment in the 1840s was less than 300, which meant that the graduating class must have been about 70.

38

Harold 04.14.15 at 8:15 pm

When Emerson attended, he and most of his classmates were boarders in their early teens.

39

Ronan(rf) 04.14.15 at 8:21 pm

34 – afaict the point is that, as with families and countries, early advantange is locked in and then transmitted across generations. This is where funding (or wealth) comes in. But the funding is more a consequence, rather than a cause, of elite status.

40

AcademicLurker 04.14.15 at 8:51 pm

When Emerson attended, he and most of his classmates were boarders in their early teens.

It speaks to the amount of time I waste reading blogs that when I read this I first thought you meant John Emerson.

41

LFC 04.14.15 at 9:37 pm

Re some of the above comments, not directed at any single one in particular:

Afaik, there has been a fair amount of good (i.e., competent, scholarly) work done on: (1) the history of higher (as well as primary and secondary) education in the U.S. in general, and (2) the history of particular institutions.

I don’t feel I can venture an opinion on the exact date at which a given ‘elite’ institution attained its position in the status hierarchy. In Harvard’s case the credit for turning it into a ‘modern’ university w lots of graduate schools etc is usu. given to the presidency of Charles W. Eliot (pres. 1869-1909), typically described as a rather mediocre chemist (he had been a chemistry professor) but a talented administrator and institution-builder. No doubt there were similarly crucial presidencies at other universities and probably in the same general time frame, when the onset of the Gilded Age and its fortunes enabled philanthropy etc on a large scale.

Does it make sense to even refer to ‘elite’ institutions in the U.S. in 1840? I would tend to doubt it. I’d say certainly there were no elite institutions in the 17th century (when Harvard and several others [Wm & Mary, Yale, College of New Jersey (later Princeton) were founded), since there weren’t enough institutions to form any sort of hierarchy. No hierarchy, no elites.

42

Harold 04.14.15 at 9:37 pm

In 1846 Francis James Child graduated from Harvard first in his class of sixty. The big period of expansion of universities was from the late 1870s through World War I and immediately after.

43

LFC 04.14.15 at 9:42 pm

p.s. The case of the great European medieval universities may be different. They always may have had some kind of ‘elite’ status. Should be kept in mind that Oxford, Cambridge, and also some continental universities were already hundreds of years old when the first American, or what became American, colleges were founded in the 17th century.

44

TM 04.14.15 at 10:44 pm

Agree with Harold and LFC. It is anachronistic to ascribe Harvard’s modern day status to “the historical circumstances of foundation” and to project the 20th/21st century, US-specific concept of elite institutions back into earlier centuries, as well as it is misleading (ageographic?) to project it into other parts of the world (it is curious that our resident Aussi subscribes to this form of US cultural imperialism (I’m 90% joking, JQ!)).

“early advantange is locked in and then transmitted across generations. This is where funding (or wealth) comes in. But the funding is more a consequence, rather than a cause, of elite status.”

The “locked in and transmitted” part requires a causal mechanism. Clearly you need a great deal of institutional continuity (which – over centuries – is actually the exception, not the rule) and a deliberate policy of sustained elitism. Neither of these are the product of spontaneous forces, nor is there any reason why historical circumstances couldn’t dramatically change the funding situation.

45

TM 04.14.15 at 10:46 pm

LFC: which would be considered “great European medieval universities”, based on what criteria, and how would they rank today? How many many names of old European universities – apart from Oxbridge – would commenters on this site even recognize?

46

William Berry 04.14.15 at 10:56 pm

“Does it make sense to even refer to ‘elite’ institutions in the U.S. in 1840?”

How about West Point?

Well, it seems to have been primarily an institution for the training of the future officers of the powerful state militias intended to put down the dreaded slave rebellions but it did require a letter of recommendation from a senator to get in.

47

Harold 04.14.15 at 11:07 pm

TM, if I may, Universities of Bologna, Paris, Padua, and Salerno to name a few. LFC is right about the philanthropists of the gilded age. Come to think of it, it was like an arms race, really. And then football came in … in the USA.

In the USA it was Johns Hopkins (1876), really, that was the first to imitate the German model, as I’m sure everyone here is aware.

48

LFC 04.14.15 at 11:08 pm

TM @45

I was thinking of Oxford; Cambridge; Paris (where there was only one univ, iirc, in the relevant period); Bologna, I think; and the very old univ. in Prague, Charles is the name I believe. The main criterion is date of establishment. Different context than the U.S. However, I’m not really up for a big debate on this.

I do think the notion of ‘elite’ universities, while apparently not v. applicable in e.g. Germany, is now applicable not just in the U.S. but outside it. A number of countries have roughly ‘hierarchical’ systems. France does, as has already been noted. Mexico too, I think. And there are others.

However, I do disagree somewhat w/ JQ’s implication, toward the end of his piece, that quality of undergrad education in the US correlates w/ position of institution in the status hierarchy. I have doubts whether that’s true. It’s possible to get a good undergrad education at a fairly wide range of schools, assuming the student is motivated, etc. The recent book by Frank Bruni, whom I heard being interviewed a couple of wks ago, I think prob. makes this pt well.

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LFC 04.14.15 at 11:08 pm

Cross-posted w Harold.

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LFC 04.14.15 at 11:11 pm

Wm Berry:

How about West Point?

Maybe. (You’ll note that I put my question as a question, not an assertion.)

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John Quiggin 04.14.15 at 11:28 pm

From Wikipedia, the six oldest universities in the United States

Harvard University, founded in 1636, chartered in 1650
The College of William & Mary, chartered in 1693
Yale University, chartered in 1701, moved to current location in 1718
Princeton University, chartered in 1746
Columbia University, chartered in 1754 as King’s College, renamed Columbia College after American independence.
University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1740, chartered in 1755

From UNSWR rankings

#1 Princeton
#2 Harvard
#3 Yale
#4 Columbia
#8 U Penn
#33 William and Mary

Obviously, whatever the causal mechanism of status transmission may be (I gave suggestions in the OP), it’s close to 100 per cent effective over a period of 300 years in the US.

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William Berry 04.14.15 at 11:29 pm

Right. And I put my response as a question, not an assertion. ; )

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js. 04.14.15 at 11:35 pm

France is a pretty weird case, tho. Because all the premier universities (ENS, the Polytechnique, Sciences Po) are all post-revolutionary, no?

This all seems a bit irrelevant though. As per the OP, something like 1911 (or anyway post-late 19th century) to the present seems like the right time frame. I’m not sure how much it matters what was going on in the middle ages or whatever.

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Peter T 04.14.15 at 11:37 pm

I think the mechanism here is that markers of elite status are extremely persistent, even as they become less exclusive, even less desirable. When Harvard was a boarding school, and Oxford a drinking club, attendance still marked one as a member of the elite. The cachet attaches to the name. And the name attracts both the bright students and staff, and those who, by virtue of their position, will reinforce the eliteness of the institution. If you have an off century (as Oxford did), it’s still quite easy to rebuild intellectual capital.

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Harold 04.14.15 at 11:42 pm

Not so much the “elite” as the clerisy — lawyers and ministers — though many, but not all, of these had inherited wealth.

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William Berry 04.15.15 at 1:32 am

Sorry, but I have to stick my non-academic neck out here with a little pushback on the threadgeist; specifically against the idea that there were no elite institutions in the U.S. before the 1840s.

In those days, virtually all colleges (with the exception of “normal schools”) were elite institutions.

And the idea that an enrollment of 400, or graduating class of sixty, is evidence for non-elite status is just plain weird.

Can’t help but add: I really get the feeling lately that there is a tendency on CT for some commenters to push back against (for the most part) unexceptionable OPs (esp. those of JQ and JH, for whatever reason) just for the sake of pointless disputation.

More and more about less and less.

Yeah, I know, somebody shat in my cheerios, but whatever.

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Harold 04.15.15 at 1:55 am

I am not sure it was *more* elite than University of Virginia or Columbia. If you passed the exam you could get in.

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Barry 04.15.15 at 12:44 pm

John: “As regards research, the advantages of stratification are obvious. The institutions at the top of the status hierarchy have continued to produce the bulk of research in leading journals, to earn Nobel Prizes and similar awards, and so on. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases where this self-perpetuating elite might benefit from the challenge of outside perspectives.”

This also fits the alternate theory that the elite institutions have access to the bulk of resources, so even if they were very inefficient, they’d still produce the bulk of the research.

BTW, at the risk of thread-jacking, what you are describing is the exact opposite mean reversion. I’ve never seen that used except with one overall mean. (note Galton’s (?) discovery and explanation).

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Barry 04.15.15 at 12:48 pm

‘exact opposite of’

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Tom West 04.15.15 at 1:57 pm

This also fits the alternate theory that the elite institutions have access to the bulk of resources, so even if they were very inefficient, they’d still produce the bulk of the research.

Given the government’s, industry’s, and private individual’s tendency to only want to back a “winner”, in the absence of elite universities, would funding simply move to different areas where there is are elite institutions to back?

Certainly seems like that when I compare Canadian universities (where the elite is fairly mild by American standards) to the funding that American institutions receive. The funding is a fair bit broader, but the total pot is a *lot* smaller.

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Tom West 04.15.15 at 1:59 pm

Just to be clear, I highly favour the non-elite model. I can only watch the American elite institution madness with horror, even if it happens to maximize research funding.

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TM 04.15.15 at 2:02 pm

Are Bologna (11th c), Padua (1222) and Prague (1348) elite institutions? And what about Montpellier (13th c), Salamanca (1218), Heidelberg (1386), Rostock (1419)? These are all venerable institutions but are these regarded as high status Universities? By whom, by what criteria?

In the case of Paris, the French state whether monarchic or republican has for centuries favored centralism, and that shows in higher education, where from what I hear if you are not at a Paris University, you don’t exist.

JQ 51: Your observation is very interesting but again, specific to the US. Your claim was that it is generalizable to “most countries with an established higher-ed tradition” and that I doubt; and other than Oxbridge, no real non-US examples have been cited.

The US situation is unusual in many respects. For one, all these institutions are private. The state kept mostly out of education until after the civil war. In Europe, most institutions are state run. The whole “endowment and alumni network” factor is very US specific. And the old age of many European universities is not the same as long-standing institutional continuity. Think of the political regimes that Bologna, Prague or Heidelberg have experienced! The US and UK are unusual – extremely unusual – in that they have experienced two or more centuries of political stability (and a high extent of let’s call it class continuity, which is indispensable to keep those alumni networks going). The rest of the world, most present-day countries didn’t even exist 100 years ago, or if the existed, then under radically different political constellations. Universities obviously aren’t insulated from that, least of all when they are state run.

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JanieM 04.15.15 at 2:23 pm

And the idea that an enrollment of 400, or graduating class of sixty, is evidence for non-elite status is just plain weird.

If Harvard had 300 students in 1840, that’s equivalent to about 5600 today, proportionally to US population. That’s not all that far off from Harvard’s current 6700 undergrads.

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William Berry 04.15.15 at 4:05 pm

BTW, at the risk of thread-jacking, what you are describing is the exact opposite mean reversion. I’ve never seen that used except with one overall mean. (note Galton’s (?) discovery and explanation).

Sorry, but no, actually. It depends on what you take to be the domain under consideration.

You can take as the domain a single institution, considering its status, over time, relative to other, similar institutions. It can be seen as having a “mean” status, to which it tends to revert over time.

This is what JQ is saying, I think.

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LFC 04.15.15 at 8:17 pm

Wm Berry @56, JanieM @63
I don’t think some of the disputes on this threads are of much consequence, but having said that, I think two different meanings of ‘elite’ are perhaps in play.

On the one hand, all US colleges in 1840 were elite in the sense that a small, probably a very small, percentage of the total population attended any post-secondary institution. On the other hand, when the total number of such institutions is itself rather small, as it was, I assume, in 1840, it’s hard to develop the kind of status hierarchy among them that is the basis for the way JQ in the OP is using the word “elite”. This is all a side issue though to the main points of the OP, which I will say something about in the next box (assuming the moderation ogre does not bite).

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LFC 04.15.15 at 8:48 pm

(typo correction for previous comment: “disputes on this thread“)

—-

While I agree with a fair amt of the OP, I would question one or two of its premises and assumptions. It seems to me that JQ underestimates the extent to which high-quality teaching and research can be found in a reasonably wide range of U.S. institutions, not just in the ones at the top of the hierarchy. In previous posts and comments JQ has put elite private univs. and flagship state univs. in one category, and drawn a sharp distinction between that category and everything else. Maybe that’s justified, but to me, as admittedly someone who does not have any particularly specialized knowledge of this, it seems a rather overly schematic and simplistic picture of what is a complicated and variegated system of higher ed.

I generally agree w JQ’s conclusion that govt support for institutions “should be allocated on the basis of need rather than used to amplify historical advantage.” One exception would be govt support for research going on at ‘advantaged’ institutions that has some promise of beneficial applications in science (e.g. climate change), medicine, public health, etc. (The govt already does some of that, though it’s a pretty small percentage of the fed. budget, I think.)

One final point. JQ suggests that one reason not to pay too much attention to the USNWR rankings is that they are not likely to change much over time. There are, however, other reasons not to pay too much attention to the rankings. Have the USNWR rankings helped prospective students make wise, considered decisions about where to apply (and which schools to attend)? It seems more likely that the USNWR rankings have had a distorting and harmful effect on decision-making by prospective students, many of whom probably don’t dig down into the rankings’ fine print and accordingly are probably overly influenced by the numbers assigned to the various schools, giving them unwarranted weight.

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John Quiggin 04.16.15 at 3:01 am

Barry @58
Mean reversion is commonly used to describe the behavior of individual time series like exchange rates, for which there is no meaningful notion of a group mean.

https://www.nber.org/papers/w6162

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Barry 04.16.15 at 2:57 pm

OK. I’m used to thinking in regression terms, where the mean is that of the population.

JanieM 04.15.15 at 2:23 pm

“If Harvard had 300 students in 1840, that’s equivalent to about 5600 today, proportionally to US population. That’s not all that far off from Harvard’s current 6700 undergrads.”

And proportionally to the population of people with college degrees, it must have been a huge deal – it’d have been poportional to 56 million or so?

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JanieM 04.16.15 at 3:11 pm

Barry — Wikipedia says the population in 1840 was 17,069,453; that’s the number I used for my rough calculations.

I think your point about college degrees is a good one. I was thinking of it a little differently (related to some of what LFC has pointed out): the whole educational system was different then. I don’t have time to look for numbers, but I would think that a vastly smaller proportion of the population went to “college” at all. (That was even true as recently as when I was growing up.) And I don’t think the notion that Harvard was just a “boarding school” for young teenagers (Ralph Waldo for one) matters. The relevant point is still that having that kind of education at all was (extremely?) uncommon.

But this isn’t my field, and my speculations don’t matter. Basically, I just react when I see numbers being thrown around without context.

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JanieM 04.16.15 at 3:12 pm

Ah, wait, I see that I must have misunderstood what Barry’s 56mm referred to.

Even so……..or all the more so.

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