University of Alabama or General Motors?: Examining the Market of Higher Education through “The Admissions Arms Race”

The college admissions process can be brutal for both students and universities. In today’s age, students spend a majority of their high school years, if not more, working towards getting accepted into their top school. On the other hand, colleges and universities spend millions of dollars on marketing and advertising materials in order to attract top students. Schools seek an edge to not only admit an elite freshman class but also to beat out other competitors and gain control of the market that is higher education. This race for the top has been referred to by authors Robert Zemsky, Gregory R. Wegmer, and William F. Massy in their novel Remaking the American University as the “admissions arms race”. When first hearing this nickname, I rolled my eyes at the overdramatization of the subject matter. Yes, college admissions is a tough process that brings out the best and worst of both parties involved but is it comparable to the competitive development of lethal weapons? I think not. However, as I continued to read the article, I was made aware of all of the aspects that go into the college admissions process, which reach far beyond what is best for the student academically. This process has previously proven to be rather disruptive for students, pressuring them to focus more on gaining acceptance to top universities rather than enjoying their final high school years, tearing apart friendships, and challenging family ties. In my own experiences, I have seen this to be true. When one of my friends got into Vanderbilt when it was never intended to be his top school, I was furious and jealous. How could someone be so selfish? He knew I wanted to attend Vanderbilt, but their admissions process is so selective that I knew it was highly unlikely that they would admit two students from the same small-town Alabama high school. Unfortunately, I was correct. Hey, roll tide roll though.

The main point of this article is that higher education is a market. At the end of the day, students and families pay thousands of dollars to get a degree, a one-time purchase that sets you up for the rest of your life. Universities have increasingly come to focus more on prices and numbers than on the actual quality of learning that occurs on campus. The authors compare institutes of higher education to car companies, “pricing their products like automobiles complete with sticker prices, discount rates, and accompanying credit packages.” If this is the case, then why have customers not treated the market of the university similar to the way they treat the automobile market, bargaining for fairer prices and better overall quality? A common tactic of state governments that I was previously unaware of is driving up the tuition prices of state universities to compensate for a lack of income and tax money. Although I think this is unfair targeting of students, I do applaud the state for making money in ways that it knows is possible. Many families consider a college education as a “necessity” and are therefore willing to pay just about any price to obtain some sort of degree. My own family classifies college as the “peak of one’s educational experience”, and I know that even if I received absolutely no scholarship money, my family would take out loans or do whatever they could to make this experience possible for me. With the influx of money spent on advertising materials informing students of all that a university has to offer, one would hope that consumers (in this case, potential college students and their families) would make informed decisions when deciding on a university. However, research has shown that this is not the case. Many Americans base their opinions on higher education institutions upon rankings put out by news sources and consumer guides, the most popular being US News’ “Best Colleges”. These rankings are not determined by educational quality or quantitative data; they are based on prestige and market position. The only substantial data that goes into the rankings of schools is their 6-year graduation rate. The reason behind this is because “when leading politicians and media pundits list higher education’s failures, they principally cite just two: the inability of colleges and universities to control their costs and hence limit their price increases, and the fact that many more students enroll than graduate.” Therefore, those high up in higher ed have decided to focus on merely one of its failures to avoid losing money because higher ed is driven by the market. By boasting their high graduation rates, colleges can attract many superior students that are willing to pay ridiculously high tuition rates. 

The message of this article is eye-opening. Colleges and universities seem to care more about making a greater profit than properly educating students and helping them to reach their full potential. Or at least, that’s what Zemsky, Wegmer, and Massy seem to think. In fact, the authors argue that the only way that universities will focus solely on the quality of education being taught on their respective campuses is if there is a market-based demand for it. However, if consumers continue to form their opinions on higher ed based upon shallow rankings that tell nothing regarding the quality of education, there will never be a high demand for improvement with data to back it. The changing of market focus must begin within the universities themselves, focusing less on profit and more on collecting data telling what students are learning and are successfully able to apply beyond their 4 (or maybe 6 or however many) years. In all, higher education is a system run by economics. Although the principle of supply and demand does not apply (college admissions is a two-way street), attending a college or university is a commercial activity. This was proven to be true in the 1992 United States vs. Brown University case in which the court decided that by setting prices on education, universities are engaging in commercial activity. This fact is a huge factor to consider when examining not only the college admissions process but higher education in general. With that being said, am I currently attending an institution for higher education or a market entity driven by the principles of commerce?

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