The Chimera of College Brands

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

June 06, 2010

I noticed two advertisements recently that say a lot about the power of institutional branding in higher education. I also had two conversations that suggest how that power might someday fade.

The first ad was pasted inside a bus stop in Washington. The University of Phoenix, the sign noted, has the same accreditation as "America's top universities."

The reason that Phoenix runs such an ad is obvious: The company suffers from a brand deficit. The university was the butt of a joke in a recent issue of GQ, which published a facetious letter to the Class of 2010. "You graduated!" the letter read. "Or maybe you just spent 45 minutes on the University of Phoenix Web site, clicked PRINT DIPLOMA, and went back downstairs to do a couple of pre-Family Guy bong rips." People are suspicious of for-profit colleges, and of online degrees; the two together doubly so. Thus, Phoenix's attempt to rub elbows in public with the higher-education elite.

The second ad, published in The New York Times's Education Life section, featured a young woman wearing a Harvard T-shirt, sitting studiously in front of academic-looking stone columns. The ad touted "Harvard Summer School," where anyone with $4,450 and a dream can live in "historic Harvard houses" for seven weeks. ("JFK slept here," the Web site says, "and so did Henry David Thoreau, Natalie Portman, and Al Gore.") But they'll also need an additional $2,580 per four-credit class, which may be taught by either Harvard College professors or "visiting scholars" (i.e., not Harvard professors).

But there's a catch: You can apply those credits toward a Harvard degree only if you get accepted at Harvard, and good luck with that. Or you can transfer the credits to another college, but only if the other college accepts them. One should be even more wary of online credits from Harvard Summer School, as the list of institutions that won't accept them includes ... Harvard College.

Harvard has the opposite of a brand deficit. It has a brand surplus. The name is so strong that Harvard can run a side business selling fake Harvard credits and nobody bats an eye.

Brands are a mighty force in this complicated world. They provide clarity and predictability, a way of quickly categorizing information. Branding seems a natural fit with the predominant method of organizing and governing higher education: creating institutions. Institutions have deep roots in our society and collective consciousness. They create tribes whose markings last a lifetime. The more people around the world who need and desire higher education, the more important institutional brands appear to be.

Yet brands fit the reality of higher education less snugly than they seem to. Every Banana Republic in America will sell you the same merino sweater. Even closer parallels in the intellectual-property business have identifiable standards. A randomly selected album issued by Matador Records will almost surely feature fine indie rock. So too with Basic Books, with its roster of nonfiction books by distinguished authors, or the Met, with its renowned operas.

What you get from a college, by contrast, varies wildly from department to department, professor to professor, and course to course. The idea implicit in college brands—that every course reflects certain institutional values and standards—is mostly a fraud. In reality, there are both great and terrible courses at the most esteemed and at the most denigrated institutions.

That's because responsibility for the content and quality of courses lies largely with individual professors, and it's very hard for students to know how good a course is before they enroll. Students also have to buy all or most of their courses from the same institution. Lacking information and locked into institutions, people fall back on brands.

That, however, is starting to change. One doesn't normally associate Utah with phrases like "European-style reform." Yet the Beehive State is at the forefront of a movement to create far more rationality and openness in the process of undergraduate education.

With a grant from the nonprofit Lumina Foundation for Education, physics and history professors from a range of Utah two- and four-year institutions are applying the "tuning" methods developed as part of the sweeping Bologna Process reforms in Europe. Led by William Evenson, a former professor of physics at Brigham Young University, faculty members developed a comprehensive account of what physics students need to know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor's, and master's degree levels. "The B.S./B.A. student should demonstrate the ability to use statistical mechanics to define the entropy from the density of states and connect this form to the 2nd law when expressed as ds = dQ/dT >= 0," for example. Other requirements include extensive laboratory, research, and communications skills.

The group also created "employability maps" by surveying employers of recent physics graduates—including General Electric, Simco Electronics, and the Air Force—to find out what knowledge and skills are needed for successful science careers.

"The process builds in accountability," Evenson told me. "Once you've defined the outcomes, you can ask, 'Are the programs really doing that?' If a student finishes and can't do what's advertised, they'll say, 'I've been shortchanged.' Transparency makes it easier for students, parents, and policy makers to make the right choices." Tuning works only if it's faculty-driven, Evenson stressed, rather than imposed from the outside. And tuning doesn't mean that different colleges and professors will all start teaching exactly the same way—only that they will teach with shared, public goals in mind.

The history team, led by Kathryn MacKay, an associate professor of history at Weber State University, drew on recent work from the American Historical Association to define learning goals in historical knowledge, thinking, and skills. Far from the sad ahistoricism displayed by the Texas Board of Education's textbook-standards committee in recent months, the Utah tuning team focused on a combination of rich knowledge and the development of historical perspectives and analytic skills. "We all see through a glass darkly," says MacKay, in acknowledging the challenge of translating this work at the institutional and departmental level. But tuning is a crucial first step.

In the immediate future, as the higher-education market continues to globalize and the allure of prestige continues to grow, the value of university brands is likely to rise. But at some point, the countervailing forces of empiricism will begin to take hold. The openness inherent to tuning and other, similar processes will make plain that college courses do not vary in quality in anything like the way that archaic, prestige- and money-driven brands imply. Once you've defined the goals, you can prove what everyone knows but few want to admit: From an educational standpoint, institutional brands are largely an illusion for which students routinely overpay. The best teaching might be at Salt Lake Community College, or Weber State, or somewhere else entirely. It might even be from a place that's not an institution at all, but rather a provider of individual, à la carte courses. Openness will let us know.

When that future arrives, life will be both harder and easier for the University of Phoenix. The easy—and, frankly, absurd—argument that mutual accreditation means anything important won't hold water anymore, so Phoenix will have to find some other selling point for its ads. But if it really does provide a good education, it'll be able to prove it in a way that might silence the wags at GQ.

Harvard, meanwhile, won't be able to generate spare cash by peddling a for-profit Disneyland version of itself. The irony of institutions dedicated to knowledge creation creating little information about what their own students learn will eventually be history. The sooner the better.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, which receives financial support from the Lumina Foundation for Education.