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Selling Hope and CollegeMerit, Markets, and Recruitment in an Unranked School$

Alex Posecznick

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781501707582

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501707582.001.0001

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Whither Ravenwood College?

(p.178) Conclusion
Selling Hope and College

Alex Posecznick

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter sketches a fuller picture of life in institutions such as Ravenwood—disciplined by market and merit. Despite faculty stereotypes, administrators were not universally malicious, incompetent, apathetic, or obsessed only with dollars. Administrators can be a convenient symbol of the corporatization of higher education in the last forty years, and certainly, university administration has been radically transformed over the course of the twentieth century. The chapter also discusses how the confluence of metrics position Ravenwood College and the value of its credential in a particular place in the hierarchy and what the consequences are for how it operates. The ways that administrators interacted with numbers, deployed persuasive scripts, moved individuals through the admission funnel, and handled Ravenwood's financial precarity were partly a logical way to handle their position in the meritocracy.

Keywords:   Ravenwood College, merit, educational market, faculty stereotypes, corporatization, higher education, credential

The suggestions that I have in effort to improve the educational experience at Ravenwood is to concentrate more on the writing skills number one, and number two offer more incentive for the students to give them the feel of being in college. I have a 19 year-old who will be attending Ravenwood College this Sept.! And I wish Ravenwood had more to offer so she would get the total experience of being a college student.

My initial experience at the beginning of Fall 2006 was great at Ravenwood College. I was surrounded by working professionals such as myself and well versed and experienced professors. However, during my time there everything went downhill. Some of the best professors I had left the school and many of the new professors were not even [subject-major] professionals and acted as though they could care less about teaching at Ravenwood and were just collecting a check. The morale of the college is at an all-time low, students have to endure a rude and incompetent staff, poor resources with the school for almost $40k per year…. I would not recommend this school to anyone because I do not feel like it is worth the money I spent. I am quite sure I can get a better experience at a host of other schools for the same amount of money while offering quality professionals and service and resources. It is very unfortunate that the [academic program] has such promise and is so unique but Ravenwood fails to tap into the resources throughout [the region].

On the job training will be a good idea because for me [it] was not possible to find a job till now on my field of study. In other words, I have a master degree, but not the job of my degree.

I would highly recommend anyone to the school, because it has worked for me, and I was accepted at my worst so I appreciate what was done for my self-esteem. Much thanks to those professors that help change my life for the better. Thank you.


(p.179) Everyone seems to agree that higher education is in a crisis, at nearly every layer. If one were to go by the alarmist rhetoric found in blogs, editorials, news programming, and popular books, American higher education is failing at nearly every level. It is too expensive (Dannenberg and Voight 2013; Gerald and Haycock 2006; U.S. Government Accountability Office 2007; Vedder 2012), it does not prepare people either for particular jobs or for careers (Arum and Roksa 2010, 2014), nor does it teach anyone anything of value even at the elite levels (Deresieqicz 2014; H. Lewis 2007). Of course, some of these concerns are rooted in very real histories of structural inequality, and therefore focus on how traditionally minoritized or marginalized populations go unserved (Harper 2015) and where racialized tension is going un-redressed (Jayakumar 2015). While some point to the complacent and comfortable lifestyles of faculty as the source of the high cost, others have pointed at higher education’s infatuation with athletics (Fisher 2009; Miller 2003; Vedder 2004), added layers of administrators and luxury-level facilities and capital investments (Vedder 2004), and declining funding from the public sector (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 2013; Tandberg 2010) as the culprits in increasing tuition rates. Certainly, the fiscal outlook is equally bleak for academics and academic labor (Manicone 2008; Youn 2005), which seemingly mitigates the faculty labor factor as a major cause for increased costs.1 With new technological and digital innovations comes a growing anxiety among faculty that “robot graders” and massive open online courses will replace human instructors and face-to-face contact entirely. As with K–12 education, higher education has become a contested battleground about labor, accountability, cost-effectiveness, and (in alignment with thinking of education as infrastructure) a collective fantasy about our future as a country. If all of higher education is in crisis, what does this say for our collective future?

Institutions must navigate these crises and tensions and manage risk, all while holding to their educational missions (as suggested by Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy 2005). Although some of these crises may be manufactured or exaggerated (in the vein of Harvey 2005), it is also true that some institutions may not survive these crises—as we have seen with recent events in Sweet Briar College and Burlington College. For now, Ravenwood College still stands. Although U.S. News & World Report no longer deploys “tiers” to describe institutions in the same way, it is still in the business of assigning ordinal ranks to every institution of higher education in the United States. (p.180) Ravenwood remains unranked, acknowledged as existing but unsuitable for “proper” ranking because of a lack of data. Since my original study, Raven-wood has reopened one of the extension campuses that had closed, although its enrollments have not changed significantly. Ravenwood seems to be pushing along at its particular point in the stratified curve.

In the United States, a complex educational infrastructure has been constructed that facilitates the flow of people, knowledge, and meanings into a heavily stratified, meritocratic curve, which then also acts to legitimate their position in that curve. Although some think that these institutions are too different to even be compared, I argue that this infrastructure supports a hierarchy of excellence and is built to manage and regulate the circulation of people within it. It is an infrastructure that is decentralized across various institutions with competing needs and agendas and is subject to the political, economic, and social tensions of the day; it reflects a single continuum of merit in higher education. Consistent with the audit culture described by authors like Strathern (2000), Apple (2005), Hall (2005), C. Shore (2008), and Shore and Wright (2015), “benchmarks,” “performance indicators,” and other standardized, numerical metrics have infiltrated many aspects of work and school, and so a large part of that infrastructure is dedicated to measurement and classification for various bureaucracies. Ravenwood is assessed, evaluated, and positioned every single day in multiple ways. Ravenwood’s applicants, students, and alumni experience the same, as they attempt to navigate that infrastructure in empowering ways. The institution and all of the individuals who participate in it mutually constitute each other’s positions. Once more, I am not attempting to determine whether these metrics accurately measure what they are purported to, nor am I suggesting that all credentials lack substance; rather, I have attempted to explore how the confluence of these metrics position Ravenwood College and the value of its credential in a particular place in the hierarchy and what the consequences are for how it operates. Although it may be true that, to many, the current practices at Ravenwood lead to its classification as “mediocre,” it is also true that its classification as “mediocre” leads to its current practices. Thus, the ways that various administrators interacted with numbers, deployed persuasive scripts, moved individuals through the admission funnel, and handled Ravenwood’s financial precarity were partly a logical way to handle their position in the meritocracy. But such ways of doing also kept them in that position.

(p.181) In many ways, Ravenwood was atypical of private, nonprofit institutions of higher education in the United States, which have traditionally drawn on affluent, White student populations. Rather, Ravenwood’s history aligned more closely with the sorts of missions and projects of public institutions, while its curricular structure was somewhat unique. It served nontraditional, underserved, minoritized students in a nontraditional way and bucked many of the conventions of the field. In fact, there was evidence to suggest that it was once even more radical, given how Flo Epstein described a group admissions interview structure that was eventually put aside in favor of more traditional application processes (see chapter 5). But the Jeffersonian paradigm of education premised on sorting has also been premised on the scientific management logics of standardization, and these measures in turn leave very little room for difference. Thus, even though Ravenwood met every formal criterion of institutionally required legitimacy, it still did not fit in neatly; standardized measures serve as incentives that standardize institutions. Partly, Ravenwood’s extraordinariness acted to position it as mediocre.

The consequences of how Ravenwood interfaced with the infrastructure were not only about routines and activity but also about meaning. The educational infrastructure is not a value-neutral machine for moving things but is layered with symbolic and emotional meanings, and it is teeming with inequality. The infrastructure, built to accommodate the needs of the traditional, White, middle-class eighteen-to twenty-two-year-old who had been living with a parent, was premised on the approaches of selective institutions. Former president Hartwick and his team were often derided for moving Ravenwood away from teaching and toward research activities—in essence, shifting the ways that the institution interfaced with the infrastructure as a whole. This movement seemingly contradicted the “special spirit” of Raven-wood and a mission of service to and empowerment of particular, marginalized communities. Or if we consider the Jeffersonian paradigm of education described in the opening of this book, the semiotic understanding of meritocracy could seemingly not accommodate both a move toward more prestige and an embrace of access to nontraditional students. The infrastructure is designed in a way that those two are put in opposition to one another, and faculty in particular reportedly saw this moment as a betrayal. Paradoxically, the Hartwick administration’s tenure also aligned with a lowering of admissions standards (at least as reflected in admission rates), fluctuations in enrollments, ethically questionable practices, and increased financial precarity.

(p.182) Although higher education has largely been corporatized along a profit-focused logic, the relationship between institution and consumer can be sharper and more intense here than in other “industries.” This is partly because which college or university one attends is not only about economic choices, but also speaks to the ways that persons have navigated other sometimes seemingly unrelated aspects of the infrastructure many years before seeking higher education. Further, as the U.S. admissions system draws on both academics and other abstract elements of character and leadership, it is seemingly the applicant’s whole being that is being assessed as worthy of access or not. No wonder the process is anxiety laden. I also argue that the discourse about reputation or brand here is so much more formidable because rather than the consumer purchasing a token of the brand (as in this particular instantiation of shoe is a token of Nike), the consumer becomes a token of the brand (as in this particular graduate is an instantiation of Ravenwood). Thus, the consumer’s future, aspiration, and sense of self become seemingly tangled up with the institution for a lifetime, a notion cultivated by every Office of Alumni Affairs that seeks to obtain donations from graduates. The logic of those donations are not only to show gratitude to the alma mater but also to continuously support the institution’s position in the meritocratic curve: if the brand declines in value, so does every alumnus affiliated with it. Of course, I do not wish to suggest that one’s undergraduate studies are the only variable in determining life path, reputation, and success. Far from it.

It is certainly true that data have suggested that obtaining an undergraduate education in any institution is statistically very impactful on income achievement,2 although how much impact which particular institution one attends is a question that is a bit more complex.3 However, despite evidence to the contrary, this understanding of the relationship between college brand and career achievement is a critical aspect of recruitment and admissions to any institution. Informing students that any bachelor’s degree is as good as any other is not a good way to persuade this particular student to attend this particular college. Thus, regardless of whether that college brand is consequential, it is absolutely essential that every institution persuade its applicants, students, and alumni that it is consequential. These institutions are in the business of conferring symbolic capital, and so it is critical that others recognize their value. Clearly, this was an area that Ravenwood struggled with, both in terms of being recognized by others and in terms of its legitimacy being contested.

(p.183) Related to these issues, and largely unspoken throughout this study, are the additional dimensions of merit as aligning with race, class, and gender. As with any ethnography, the human relationships developed with participants is so much at the center of the research project that there are limits on what one can access. My being a White, heterosexual, male anthropologist from an elite institution with a background in administration here engaging with administrators very deeply shaped how I was perceived, what I was able to gain access to, and how messages were packaged for my ears. Some participants were defensive, some apologetic, some instructive, and some silent. These factors, among many others, may demonstrate why so much of my data highlights formal organizational structures and informal practices at Ravenwood. I encountered very little explicit talk about race, class, and gender, although it seemingly infiltrated every conversation and practice in unspoken ways. This is also likely a result of the ways that the broader infrastructure has been reconfigured around the shifting discourse of political correctness, in which even the noticing of difference can be equated with discrimination. Thus, Pollock (2004) has expertly elaborated thoughtful ways of examining color muteness or color blindness in educational discourses.4 Although these were socially and culturally real ways that staff and faculty thought about students, there were only limited institutionally approved ways available to talk about those differences and their impact on Ravenwood. It has been well documented how professions and career paths that are historically associated with Whiteness, maleness, and affluence hold more symbolic capital and prestige while offering higher remuneration.5 Not only was Raven-wood overwhelmingly made up of adult, working-class women of color, but many of the undergraduate degree options were also those considered “paraprofessional” or “vocational.”

Ravenwood College thus found itself in a peculiar position. Although Ravenwood inhabited a “mediocre” position, moving the institution along any of a series of paths away from that mediocrity also seemingly pushed it up against its mission. Moving toward the traditional means of reproducing symbolic capital and prestige would be both risky (because it had cultivated a particular niche and elaborated certain ways of doing things that worked for the institution) and a betrayal of the student body and the mission laid out by the founders. When administrators spoke of increasing diversity at Ravenwood, it was often done in a way that suggested attracting more students who were better prepared by traditional K–12 schooling, scored better (p.184) on standardized tests, and could bring Ravenwood more stability and prestige. Given the nature of the United States’ historical and contemporary structural inequities, this implies a desire to attract more people who were White, male, and/or middle class.

As mentioned, it was not only its student body, however, that was nontraditional at Ravenwood. Courses could only be taken in Learning Community Clusters, there were no electives, the capstone was central to the experience, courses were often misaligned with the traditional three credit-hour course, and there were only select applied or vocational majors. SATs and ACTs were not a central part of the admissions process. Many of the metrics drawn upon by college ranking guides were relatively unimportant. Thus, there had been other conversations about abandoning some or all elements of the curriculum to better align Ravenwood with the conventions of other institutions of higher education. Transitioning into Ravenwood, either as a student or as an employee, required shifting expectations about how a university curriculum was structured and took some time to explain to newcomers. Although many felt that this educational experience was at the center of Ravenwood’s “special spirit,” it complicated transfer experiences and did not conform with the ways most universities operated. Some expressed the sentiment that moving away from this structure was another sort of betrayal. Others expressed frustration at its rigidity. As with many aspects of life at Ravenwood, there was little consensus about what should be done, although there seemed to be a good deal of dissatisfaction with the way things were being done.

From my perspective as an outsider, there seemed to be very little time for careful forethought at Ravenwood. Its precarious financial situation and rolling admissions throughout the year required constant work just to acquire enough students so that the college could continue to exist, suggesting an almost “culture of poverty” model for institutional orientation to the future. Long-range planning was a luxury the college did not have. There was always anxiety beneath the surface that this semester would see a decline and that the institution as a whole would suffer; layoffs or worse could be in the future. Ravenwood seems to be doing well at the moment. But given its cost, its population served, and a growing sense that online and/or proprietary higher education will continue to penetrate the market, some might think it unlikely that Ravenwood will survive the next few decades. There would also be some who might say “good riddance.” From the market-fundamentalist (p.185) perspective, this book may just be documenting an institution’s final days as the invisible hand of the market swings down upon it. Ravenwood may be a dinosaur—an artifact from a different era of higher education better suited to a museum than to a marketplace.

What are the faculty and staff of Ravenwood to do with that interpretation? What are the students and alumni to do with it? What is to happen to the “special spirit” that does not seem to fit in with the contemporary higher education marketplace? Ravenwood did not have the resources to challenge broad cultural understandings of merit or conventions of higher education. It seems as if the only institutions with the resources necessary to challenge such presuppositions are the ones that do very well in the current climate. At Ravenwood, there was a sense that any attempt to move itself up the meritocratic curve was one that would move it away from its mission, its exceptional history, and the special spirit that resonated with so many of its nontraditional students. Yet staying where it was had proven to be challenging from a fiscal perspective. In other words, it was trapped in a paradox where to be less mediocre would include trying to be more like everyone else. And that is extraordinary.

In 2008, the election of Barak Obama filled the Ravenwood community with hope, hope that there was a place for this institution and these students in the meritocracy. How will Ravenwood’s story be rewritten under a Trump administration? Time alone will tell. At their heart, the stories of such institutions are not about networks, bricks, brands, policies, or curricula. Raven-wood’s story is a human one, about one institution’s struggles with categories it did not produce and with which it did not neatly fit. Ravenwood College had to “sell” hope to attract students, but also needed to locate hope in a marketplace that seemed incompatible with its mission. Some thought that Ravenwood was mediocre, but the notion of mediocrity seemingly erases this nuance into a monotonous and meaningless uniformity that requires neither deep analysis nor deep thought. There are extraordinary, worthwhile, and hopeful stories in such “mediocre” places just waiting to be written down. (p.186)


(1.) Endless editorials, blogs, and articles in academic circles speak to the deep anxiety about the decline of tenure and the rise of contingent faculty labor, including Berlinerblau 2014; Dunn 2013; June 2014; and Schmidt 2014. The depth of academic stratification has been of growing emphasis. See, for example, stories of faculty on food stamps (Chronicle of Higher Education 2012) or about the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a twenty-five-year veteran contingent faculty member at Duquesne University, who was so impoverished at the time of her death that she could not afford electricity (Lindsay 2013).

(2.) This is demonstrated in any cursory review of median annual earnings by education level available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

(3.) As Dale and Krueger (2002) point out, in some studies, where one applies has greater consequence on income than where one attends. That is, applicants who applied to very selective institutions performed as well as those who attended selective (p.198) institutions—even if the former did not gain admission. Similar conclusions were reached by Brewer, Eide, and Ehrenberg (1999).

(4.) Others have also examined the historical origins of color-blind policy as a means to reinforce existing structures and inequities in the Unites States, including Anderson (2007); Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich (2011); Marx and Larson (2011); and Ullucci and Battey (2011).

(5.) For example, these career paths include teaching, nursing, and social work in comparison to professorships, medical doctors, and psychologists.