In The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology, is condemned to roll a massive boulder up a mountain for eternity, only to see the boulder brought back down the mountain each time by the force of its own weight. In higher education, the competitive pressure is no less heavy for institutions to rise in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Although some institutions have succeeded in improving their perceived prestige, as an industry the task is futile: only 25 schools can rank in the top 25. The Sisyphean race to the top has distorted institutional priorities and created an opening for new competitors in various niches of higher education—and yet, instead of responding in new ways, too many administrators remain focused on the upward march toward prestige.

One area in which higher education is seeing a wave of new competition is legal education. In their new white paper, Michele Pistone and Michael Horn suggest that law schools are facing declining applications and a series of competitive threats. As legal services become standardized and then automated, regulations are increasingly allowing non-lawyers to provide services that JDs have handled exclusively in the past. Students have responded as one might expect to a worsening job market for lawyers: traditional law schools have seen their applicant pools shrink by 40 percent over the past 10 years. Rather than adapting to the new needs of a rapidly evolving market for legal services, however, law schools are still focused largely on maintaining their prestige by competing—through heavy tuition discounts—for the remaining law students.

This competition, however, incentivizes institutions, both law schools and higher education institutions broadly, to value the factors that determine their rankings: reputation, financial resources, and the test scores and grades of the incoming student body. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with having a high-achieving incoming class, significant financial resources, and the respect of your peer institutions, competing on these factors distracts institutions from two important outcomes: the learning that takes place at their institution and the jobs their graduates can secure.

Imagine a world in which maximizing learning and job readiness of students was all that institutions prioritized. Administrators would only hire the “best” professors—with “best” being measured by teaching ability, not research and publications. Similarly, they would make promotion and tenure decisions based on a professor’s pedagogical ability, not on the publish-or-perish game we play today. They would identify what did and didn’t work in the classroom and then innovate rigorously toward better delivery models. They would focus curriculum design on the twin objectives of education: preparing students for the workforce and building a foundation of skills and knowledge that enable good citizenship and meaningful living.

The quest for prestige has also driven an “arms race” for better facilities and ever more money. As the Bowen law goes, colleges and universities are driven to raise all they can—and then spend all they raise. The race for resources has its own circular incentives: more prestigious institutions have an easier time raising money, which they can then use to increase their prestige. More money can buy better facilities, Nobel Prize-winning professors, and scholarships designed to attract high-achieving students—and per-student spending is a critical element of the ranking formulas. More prestige makes it easier for institutions to raise money from alumni, secure grants, and raise tuition (although falling in the rankings can drive price hikes, too, as institutions try harder to push the prestige boulder back up the mountain).

As the plane of competition shifts from prestige to student outcomes, a wave of new entrants are focusing on programs that measure and increase learning and that focus on skills needed by the labor market. These offerings are often modular, which means that students can focus on specific skills and competencies. This has the effect of focusing the entire enterprise on learning and job placement rather than prestige and reputation. The result is that students learn more, at a lower cost. Pistone and Horn describe the emergence of these types of innovative programs and credentials in the legal field as well, such as Washington State’s Limited Legal License Technician program. But as new entrants focus on learning, established law schools continue to play the prestige game.

All stakeholders have an interest in student learning. So why has prestige emerged as the metric of competition? Historically, we haven’t been able to measure learning and human capital development very well. Initially, prestige was a proxy for the value an institution could add to a student’s human capital, but over time it has become an end in itself. To a point, better facilities and more accomplished professors can enhance student learning. But chasing those things has become a distraction from the core mission of higher education. In the myth, Sisyphus was condemned to his task forever. Higher education, however, is being given a new opportunity. Disruptive entrants are building new business models around student learning and job placement. The question is whether established institutions will adapt to a new plane of competition—or continue marching the prestige boulder uphill.


  • Alana Dunagan
    Alana Dunagan