The hybrid degree and institutional clout

<p>Nighttime at Duke Kunshan University, captured in a long-exposure shot.&nbsp;</p>

Nighttime at Duke Kunshan University, captured in a long-exposure shot. 

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, usually published every other Friday.

I still less-than-fondly remember the time in high school when I decided to apply to college abroad. The first step of deciding the list of colleges to apply to was itself rather arduous, and my mother had decided to make a draft list to help me narrow it down. I chuckled when I realized that her list was a copy of the top 20 colleges in the United States based on overall ranking—a reaction that quickly faded as I realized she truly felt ranking and prestige should be my most important criteria.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all implicitly understand the clout involved with a big-name higher-education institution's degree, and none value that clout more than the institutions themselves. Harvard understands the typical reaction to its name, and in the United States, where endowment amounts are practically a function of the institution’s prestige, that clout is essentially priceless. And be it Oxbridge’s exclusivity or the selective recruitment offers at the Indian Institutes of Technology, the top names in higher education the world over understand the value of their brand and have a vested financial interest in maintaining that brand’s clout.

That prestige is also their key to securing international student revenue streams. With the significant proportions of total revenue that tuition costs and other fees for international students make up, maintaining that image of exclusivity is essential for institutions to secure their highest-paying customers. After all, the exclusivity and prestige of big-name schools is central to the appeal of many of the biggest institutions to foreign students.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the negative effect of online classes on enrollment at schools popular with international students is already well documented. Even Duke’s own drop in the U.S. News and World Report rankings this year, although not caused by classes moving online, felt like it caused an uproar among many international student communities—a reaction I’ve even personally witnessed in family WhatsApp groups wildly concerned about the status of my future degree.

Moreover, as different industries and perspectives take a step back and reevaluate what a degree means to them, the status of the high-clout degree seems more precarious than it’s ever been.

But has it ever really mattered?

The perspective one has of a degree from a well-known institution already varies wildly in different circumstances. It’s often believed that the connections formed with peers and professors while at a highly ranked institution are worth plenty more than the degree itself—especially so for business majors—and for STEM and other more technical fields, that prestige gap seems to rely on those connections to academia and professional development as the major selling point. When it comes to actual quantitative outcomes, however, as one might expect, the prestige factor can provide significant boosts for business and liberal arts majors, but makes hardly any difference for STEM graduates.

Besides, what does going online for a while even mean for us when we graduate? Employers will almost definitely understand the unique circumstances of these times, and it will do little to damage, let alone invalidate, the rest of the time we will have spent at the institutions themselves.

And so, as with most of the industries it has affected, COVID-19 seems to have only accelerated changes that were already well in motion. The fact is, COVID-19 will do little to affect the value of “clout” degrees that themselves have been slowly depreciating for a while now, both in how companies are starting to waive degree requirements for positions that do not require explicit specialization, as well as in how the perceived prestige gap between “generic institution” and “clout institution” degrees is closing by the nature of the democratization of knowledge, particularly for STEM fields.

Nonetheless, as long as institutions’ names remain synonymous with prestige and their branding has monetary value to the institutions themselves, it seems that online learning will do little to affect the clout of these institutions that external factors don’t already independently impact. And as long as that clout is backed by real yardsticks of significant alumni achievement, and that prestige is an important factor to international and domestic students, it seems that clout is here to stay—even if it is slowly diminishing in its practical importance.

Aryan Poonacha is a sophomore in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai.


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