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College Unranked, and Remaking the American University - Review

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Of course, the world has changed since 1945 and rankings, not research issues, now appear to dominate policy considerations at many of the most highly selective colleges and universities.


The posting below is a review by Sandra L. Koresoja of two books, College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, edited by Lloyd Thacker, published by Harvard University Press and Remaking the American University - Market Smart and Mission Centered, by Robert Zemsky, Gregory R. Wegner, and William F. Massy, published by Rurgers University Press. The review originally appeared in Planning for Higher Education. January - March, 2008. Copyright © 1998-2008 by Society for College and University Planning ( Reprinted with permission. Planning for Higher Education book reviews appear at: (


Rick Reis

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College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy

Reviewed by Sandra L. Kortesoja



College admissions frenzy? Yes, frenzy! For many college-bound students and their parents, college admissions is not only a complex process, but also an intimidating high-stakes decision experience. College is an expensive investment, so family circumstances as well as market forces play a role in college selection. Although different in scope, style, and intended audience, College Unranked and Remaking the American University both call for improvements in the four-year college and university experience, including admissions. In the mid-20th century, news reports described the "nuclear arms race" and a wide range of Cold War tensions. Today, these two books argue that the current "admissions arms race" (Thacker, p.18; Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 32) exaggerates the importance of college rankings in the admissions process, not only increasing tensions for students, but also reflecting the sweeping influence of global market forces on American higher education institutions.

This review begins with a description of College Unranked-a collection of essays written by presidents and deans of admissions at several colleges and universities to "respond to the admissions crisis" (Thacker, p. 6). Taking a contrasting view of the scope of the problem, the authors of Remaking the American University make their case from a broader perspective of today's "competitive preoccupation with published rankings and markets" (from the book jacket). Beginning with a summary of higher education's historical role in American society, Zemsky, Wegner, and Massey also create a conceptual framework for understanding "the changing dynamics of higher education institutions" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massey, p. 19).

Despite the positive emphasis in many undergraduate programs on the learning needs and career aspirations of students (including active and engaged learning; holistic learning; and more focus on experiential, collaborative, and service learning), neither book highlights these initiatives. However, by complementing one another with their contrasting styles and different calls to action, these two books help explain the role that market forces and the media have come to play in higher education.

College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy

After 30 years in college admissions and high school counseling, Lloyd Thacker decided to channel his own efforts and the involvement of other educators in a more powerful way.

College Unranked represents one of Thacker's efforts as executive director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group he established early in 2004 committed to helping students, counselors, and colleges overcome commercial interference in college admissions. Throughout the fall of 2007, Thacker has been in the news in connection with a September conference his organization convened at Yale University to create a public forum to further the work of the Education Conservancy and extend the message of College Unranked.

Through a series of "Editor's Stories" interspersed among groups of contributed essays, Thacker argues "few colleges have been able to resist the pervasive influence of commercial admission practices" and "many colleges have gone to extraordinary lengths to increase applications" to improve their market position and rank (Thacker, p. 56). Many students-and parents-now immersed in the college admissions frenzy have expressed gratitude for the book and for Thacker's campaign against the management of enrollment as a business function that views students as customers. He cites tactics such as "offering scholarship money to early applicants, waiving college application fees, encouraging students to apply even though they were clearly inadmissible, falsification of data, and aggressive and blatant overselling of programs and majors" (Thacker, p. 56) as some examples of the excessive measures taken to increase the number of applications.

The contributed essays by college presidents and deans of admissions describing their own experiences with admissions practices at their institutions each portray a personal perspective. In the first section of College Unranked, some contributors describe scenes that help to highlight the pressure today's high school students feel to acquire the "right" college degree. In an essay entitled "Sanity Check," Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, observes the unhappy result of well-meaning practices over time: "Colleges have been exceptionally brilliant, if unintentional, in their creation of market frenzy that so plainly and painfully has led to an admission process obsession during the past twenty years" (Thacker, p. 43). His essay begins by describing how the abundance of information available about the college admissions process "has pushed so many to forget that this process is really about education" (Thacker, p. 35), and he includes helpful suggestions to students for navigating-and learning something from-the selection process.

Other essays in College Unranked provide examples of how enrollment management has been heavily influenced by outside marketing firms. One essay highlights the increased focus on manipulating data, such as the college's number of applicants and the average applicant SAT score (Thacker, p. 59). Another discusses economic dynamics, business imperatives, and how "peer institution and public perception of academic selectivity" actually create the reality of a more selective institution (Thacker, p. 81). Several contributors mention today's prevailing atmosphere of concern about college "status," popularized through the news media and books such as The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College (Steinberg 2002). Offering a "de-pressured" approach to college choice, Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment, student life and college relations at Dickinson College, presents key questions and useful tools to help students to, as the section is titled, "Know Yourself First" (Thacker, p. 140). Other "Editor's Stories" include accounts of a "new breed of the college CEO" (Thacker, p. 87) or president as entrepreneur and Thacker's observation that the focus of major advertisement agencies on the child consumer starting in the 1980s has created the most "sold-to" generation in history. Thacker describes, for example, how one student and her family were overwhelmed by direct mail campaigns. Such campaigns, facilitated by the College Board's sale of student names and addresses to colleges (information collected when students register for the PSAT and SAT), have resulted in the "mass 'customerization' of prospective college students" (Thacker, p. 121).

Thacker also highlights the preferential treatment of athletes in admissions ("category admission") and commercialism's "cultural" influence on higher education through sports.

Remaking the American University: Market-Smart and Mission-Centered

Robert Zemsky, Gregory R. Wegner, and William F. Massy also have the long experience necessary to recognize changing circumstances not only in the transition from high school to college, but also in the transformation of the broader higher education environment. In introducing their current book, the authors characterize the focus of their earlier work as "the transformation of the American university" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 1). A longtime professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Zemsky has served as the university's chief planning officer, as founding director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education, and as codirector of the federal government's National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce. Wegner, the former managing editor of Policy Perspectives, a publication of the Pew Higher Education Roundtable and the Knight Collaborative, is now director of program development at the Great Lakes Colleges Association. Massy, now serving as president of the Jackson Hole Higher Education Group, Inc., is also professor emeritus of higher education and business administration and a former senior administrator at Stanford University.

Remaking the American University begins with a historical perspective of the role of American universities in the communities they serve and the diminishing of public purpose in American higher education since the 1980s. In contrast with today, the authors describe how in the quarter century following World War II, "the American university was expected to play a major role in the pursuit of broad societal goals" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 2). In that post-war era, investment in higher education was expanded through federal initiatives such as the 1944 GI Bill and Vannevar Bush's 1945 report Science, The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President. As the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush stressed both the importance to the nation of large ongoing investment in basic scientific research and the importance of such research being conducted in American research universities by scientists working in "an atmosphere which is relatively free from the adverse pressure of convention, prejudice, or commercial necessity" (quoted in Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 2). The post-World War II period also saw the beginning of reliance on standardized testing and SAT scores in college admissions (Lemann 1999).

Of course, the world has changed since 1945 and rankings, not research issues, now appear to dominate policy considerations at many of the most highly selective colleges and universities. According to Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, by the early 1990s, marketing efforts had become popular with all institutional types. The authors also report that many observers expected the influence of market forces such as the U.S. News & World Report rankings (titled "America's Best Colleges") to allow better-informed consumers to make better decisions-a sentiment echoed by the editor (U.S. News & World Report 2007)-and to encourage a measure of institutional accountability with respect to ever-escalating prices. However, especially with respect to undergraduate enrollment at institutions practicing selective admissions, college selection is a process unlike other purchasing decisions: the value of the degree being sought "depends on the reputation of the institution no less than on the purchaser's natural abilities or the effort expended in earning that degree" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 35). Similar ambiguity exists about the value of rankings: what exactly is being measured? The authors argue that rankings do not measure the quality of the educational experience; rather, they measure competitive advantage.

After noting the drift toward private purposes characterized by the "growing importance of a college education in obtaining jobs and higher pay" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 4), the authors describe a new framework for understanding the organizational complexities and dynamics of today's universities. They recognize the growing numbers of students seeking a college or university education and the unlikelihood that "either market forces will play a less dominant role or that universities will become less costly or less complex enterprises" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 7). The chapter titled "The Lattice and the Ratchet" describes a growing focus on money and the recasting of roles and responsibilities across institutions. Historically, as the need for "administrative entrepreneurialism" increased (the "administrative lattice"), so did the specialization by faculty members (the "academic ratchet"), the latter a development that "steadily disengaged each faculty member's greatest energies and attention from his or her home institution" and "further displaced the norm of faculty from institutionally defined goals and toward the more specialized concerns of research, publication, professional service, and personal pursuits" (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, p. 25).

In addition to the issue of disproportionate concern for rankings, Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy devote several chapters of Remaking the American University to other examples of the consequences of market competition in higher education, reemphasizing their observation that institutions appear to not fully understand the workings of markets. In the chapter titled "To Publish and Perish" they analyze the complicated role and purpose of academic publication, explaining how the ideal of publication as a "gift exchange" among faculty researchers at an institution differs from the reality of an ever-expanding volume of research (and rapidly rising costs) faced by today's university and its library in today's global communities of scholars. Issues associated with institutional investment in e-learning, the subject of a subsequent chapter, represent another example of the consequences of market competition in higher education. One of the most difficult dilemmas that arises as a consequence of market competition in higher education is summarized in chapter 8: "Who Owns Teaching?"


Although different in scope, both books reviewed here call for an increased awareness of current trends and for thoughtful initiatives that maintain institutional diversity yet redirect the future to decrease competitive pressure. Both College Unranked and Remaking the American University acknowledge that commercial influences have played a major role in encouraging the admissions arms race. In advocating for students, Thacker concludes, "something is wrong with college admissions-something wrong enough to care about, to discuss, and to change" (Thacker, p. 173). No one wins the admissions arms race. Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy urge institutions to adopt a "mission-centered"- but "market-smart"-approach that benefits all by creating policies that work with, or even through, the inevitable market mechanisms of the future to improve educational quality.

These are not simple solutions. In today's colleges and universities, the influence of market forces has tended to alter faculty as well as institutional incentives, while Internet communications capabilities have blurred the boundaries of academic knowledge and created global research communities (Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons 2001). Thacker begins the discussion regarding changes in the admissions process by asking in a section title, "Who Can Do What Needs to Be Done?" (Thacker, p. 181). His suggested initial steps to collective action are focused on students, parents, colleges, the College Board, and members of the media involved with ranking colleges. The suggestions of Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy for institutions seem less concrete. Yet, their book helps to explain the origins and broader context of the admissions arms race; it also furthers a larger discussion of importance to planners and policy makers by raising new questions about the "public good" purposes, or social value, of higher education in today's increasingly globally connected world.


Lemann, N. 1999. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Nowotny, H., P. Scott, and M. Gibbons. 2001. Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Steinberg, J. 2002. The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College. New York: Viking Penguin.

U.S. News & World Report. 2007 America's Best Colleges. August 27, 4, 70-124.