The first post about that project got a significant amount of interaction. I appreciated it.
Since then I have read, read some more, and done some thinking. I read across institutional, neo-institutional, macro structural theories of legitimacy and micro theories of legitimacy. I tried to cull from all of that every possible mechanism for the production or transference of prestige. This is a technical post, more technical than I usually do here. But, it worked out great before. Also, it hopefully makes good on the time people invested in commenting by showing how their engagement impacted my thinking.
A few technical thoughts on that:
1. We can call it prestige or we can call it legitimacy. After a lot of thought I am going with prestige for a few reasons. An organization can be legitimate and not prestigious. This is particularly true of organizations in a highly regulated institutional field like education. I could not find any examples of what I would consider a prestigious educational institution that lacked any kind of legitimacy, be it legal or social. Two, I decided that it is not legitimacy that creates hierarchy among higher education institutions. It is absolutely prestige. And the crux of the tension that existing theories have with fully theorizing the expansion and challenges of the for-profit sector is rooted in the practical reality that being legitimate does not make an institution prestigious.
2. I had to decide early on that I would stick with a meso level of analysis. At the macro level, prestige becomes this tautology that is near impossible to operationalize: a college is prestigious because its students are prestigious and its students are prestigious because the college can bestow prestige upon them. That’s philosophically fun but not what I’m going after. And I need not go after it to get at my point that, which is that them’s that got seem to get. That is, some schools got prestige and some schools ain’t got prestige.
3. The meso (organizational) level of analysis escapes that tautology to a certain extent (it’s always constrained by the mutually reinforcing character of the structure) by allowing for a focus on the characteristics that are co-variate with prestige. An elite football team may not make a college prestigious, for example, but when it shows up with a high ratio of Nobel laureate professors and a regional accreditation status then the effect is the same: there’s some prestige found here.
4. Finally, I had to decide just what cases I was trying to account for theoretically. It would have been nice if U.S. News and World Report had already handled this for me, but alas, the private sector failed me. There’s no ranking of for-profit colleges. Actually, that there is no ranking is part of the argument for this analysis. No one can figure out what those metrics for ranking should be. So, I had to create my own subset of for-profit colleges that are more prestigious than the rest. No lie. I have four schools that I am trying to explain. To determine that subset I returned to org theory: the first and foremost had to be legitimate. I assembled all the legal and political cases against for-profit colleges over the last ten years and threw out the frequent defendants. I then turned to documents from senate hearings and culled schools listed as “good actors”. I whittled that list down using a survey administered by the society of human resources professionals that ranked perceptions among hiring managers of different “online” schools. I recognize the conflation there but I pulled out the schools that were for-profit and ranked highly by this critical group of gatekeepers. Finally, I did the very low-fi process of relying on my reading of popular press to suss those schools with the lowest ick factor. The four schools left standing are my group of marginally prestigious for-profits. They aren’t sued a lot, they don’t have to spend a lot of money defending their existence to political actors, they don’t spend a lot on lobbying, two are not APSCU members (interesting) and people maybe don’t hate the idea of hiring their graduates or sending their kid there. Why?
I posit that the answer is not entirely possible to find through the common neo-institutional approach to these types of org and higher ed questions. I think something is under-theorized there. I think it may be something in how neo-institutionalism under-theorizes ideology and/or culture? I can’t get at the pervasive power of the education gospel through neo-institutional approaches. I tried. Could be my reading of it though. Human capital theories also fall short for, like, all the totally obvs reasons. There’s no social process in those theories. But functionalist approaches abound in similar attempts at measuring the effectiveness of for-profit colleges, so I account for that as an alternate theory. Social reproduction theories have some useful thoughts on the importance of organizational arrangements. I also allow for that.
My current causal model for my proposed theory draws on the almost insurmountable hurdle of organizational prestige as a primitive accumulation of capital. Thank to commenters for that. I try to account for how that can be navigated.
5. That’s the question. If there is some combination of characteristics that explain this group of schools, I argue that there are mechanisms for attending to the prestige of an organization. That is even true for low-prestige, beleaguered for-profit colleges who are operating in one of the most prestige driven environments in our culture.
Thanks all for the feedback so far. This is a work in progress.