Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You've been advised, part II

So if my dissertation is being driven by a central idea, what is that idea? I'm been thinking through a bevy of ideas, and I feel like I can't quite get there. Here's some of what I've been tossing around.

"Elite institutions have interests identical with those of elite individuals." A hundred years ago, Harvard wasn't selective. They didn't turn down a lot of students. Instead, it was in a mutually supportive relationship with America's elite, especially the Boston elite. The right folks applied and were admitted, and most everyone else didn't give a rip. This solidarity thesis may have been true back in that day, but it hasn't been for a long time. When Columbia and Penn started admitting more Jews, their relationships with the upper class eroded, according to work by Farnum. That they allowed this to happen suggests the institutions had some interests at least that did not coincide with the elite as a whole.

Well, how about a thesis about change over time? Because I'm not doing a history. Whatever changes have taken place are a backdrop; I'm just analyzing the current situation.

"To those that have, are given." This is accumulative advantage, or the Matthew Effect, made famous by Merton. Certainly I am looking at institutions that have and keep getting. But I'm not explaining why everyone else can't keep up; I'm looking at the active process of keeping at the head of the procession. Accumulative advantage may state that organizations do whatever it takes to stay ahead; it doesn't say why one course of action rather than another is what it takes.

Stratification is too broad, but I think I can discard it without delving too deep. Colleges are stratified, sure, but stratification theory is about how individuals behave. It's why the stakeholders in my dissertation are making the demands on colleges they do. But I don't think it describes how colleges decide to respond.

If you're talking about responding to stakeholders, you're talking resource dependency. That is, organizations respond to the demands of those who have resources, be those fiscal or regulatory or something else. The problem with this theory is that no matter what an org does, it can be explained by resource dependency. Therefore, it's not predictive. You can't model how a college decides to respond to one set of stakeholders or balance conflicting demands. I am arguing that colleges are in fact actively balancing contradictory constituent demands, but this can't tell me in what proportion, or why it just doesn't give up one set of stakeholders. For a theory, RD is strangely atheoretical.

I'm only starting to read about status systems, so maybe I don't know enough about them yet to really say much. I have a feeling there could be something there.

I'm thinking about consumption and how you know a good is high status. Some things are consumed only by elites. Say, yachts. Whatever interest most people have in yachts, we aren't buying them. Do you know yacht brands? I don't. Other goods everybody buys, say, cars. Here we can identify elite brands even if we don't purchase them ourselves. We all tacitly know that a Ferrari is better than a Kia. Part of that is price, but is it all? Doesn't part of Ferrari's status depend on being known as a status good? Kia could jack up their prices - even hire a Ferrari designer - and the end product might cost more than my Cinco, but I bet it wouldn't compete with a Ferrari.

So a high-end product in a mass market, I think, needs both scarcity (whether artificial or natural) as well as name recognition. (I'm wandering into Veblen territory here.) Colleges, back in the day, did not produce goods for the masses, and so were like yachts. Today, with the massification of higher education, they do, and are like cars.

Being scarce isn't hard for the top colleges to do - just limit admissions. Being broadly identified as an elite product is. Price is a signal to some extent, but just like in the souped-up Kia example it isn't enough. How does Ferrari stay on top? It makes cars that perform well. What is the equivalent for a college? It has to be known to perform well, which I think for a college doesn't mean it teaches students a lot. It means it offers entree into elite society. Frankly, that's really the only good an elite institution offers that other colleges don't. That's the hard thing to maintain that drives a lot of institutional behavior. The concessions made to elites, such as an advantages in admissions, are not because they have identical interests or because colleges need their fiscal resources, but because good relationships with elites are what they are selling to all comers.

But I know nothing about consumption and luxury goods, except what I know from The Theory of the Leisure Class, which is a century old. Somehow I don't think scholars have been sitting around twiddling their thumbs on the topic.

Wait, is this what my dissertation is about? If so, I had no idea until right about now. How can my central, driving question be entirely subconscious? I don't even know where to look in the literature. And if that's my argument, why aren't I just looking at legacy admissions? Why am I adding development admits too?

I need a luxury good right about now. Preferably a strong one with a little umbrella in it.

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