The College Status Game: Why I Think Chico State is a Better University than UC Berkeley  

College is not just about learning, it is about status and hierarchy, too. So what do the fine nineteen year-olds at UC Berkeley think about us at low ranked Chico State? And how do we think about the snobs at UC Berkeley? Dismissiveness, preening, and sour grapes are part of the ranking game.

Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. We posture because status has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, the labor economists tell us that the more productive labor is, the more money, prestige, power, and honor will be acquired via the blind mechanisms of a marketplace that knows only productivity. But this ideology while important, belies what many of us intuitively know about the real world. Status is not only dependent on the mechanisms of a blind market, no matter how efficient it may be, but also is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what university you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace. And as study after study have shown advantage in the labor market also depends on legally pernicious status categories like race, gender, religion, and social class.

Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market that sees only productivity, and a social world tuned into status distinctions based on relationships. As labor economists (and university administrators) assure us, what is learned at the university makes labor more productive in the marketplace. But, this is not the whole story. Because, universities are not only about the acquisition of skills valued in the marketplace. Attendance at a particular university is also used as a status marker to determine how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual has. Were this not the case, no university administrator, parent, high school student, college counselor, or anyone else would pay any attention to the college status rankings published each fall by US News and World Report and other rankers of college and university prestige. And for this reason, it is interesting to think about what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. And of course these views are not the same because, after all, status matters. Thus, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley have one way of viewing their privileges and advantages in what they presume to be a competitive life in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case Chico State) do too. But our views about the justice of Berkeley graduates’ privileges are different.

Beemers

 Why Chico State Does Better at Undergraduate Education than UC Berkeley: A Brief Rant

I will be blunt. When it comes to undergraduate education I think Chico State does a better job than UC Berkeley. The many large classes at Berkeley are too big for undergraduates. Berkeley’s classroom teachers or what they call “discussion leaders” are often inexperienced graduate students, and not the big name (and well-paid) research professors on the letterhead who may be widely published but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also freely gives students credit for time the faculty do not teach. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in spring 2011 had 279 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section that was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours. In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with about 40 students, and Chico students received only three hours credit for this. As for Berkeley’s undergraduate students, they themselves are among the smartest and hardest working high school students in California. And, at the end of four years at Berkeley, they may well still be smart and hard-working, although I have yet to see any evidence that this quality is acquired at Berkeley rather than one the students brought with them fro high school.

Chico State in contrast has smaller classes, few inexperienced graduate student teachers, and hire faculty because they want to teach undergraduates for their career. Big name or not, undergraduates routinely interact with experienced faculty hired for demonstrated teaching skills, even though they may also write books and academic articles just like the big names at UC Berkeley. It may well be true that Berkeley educates the very best high school students that California has. But Chico State takes California’s second best students, and makes them into really talented people. One day, I would like to see Chico challenge Berkeley on “value-added” in terms of student learning. I am confident that Chico grads would best Berkeley grads in terms of how much they learned from their classes between the day they walked in the door and the day they graduated. After all, it does not take much to take the straight A student from high school, and then turn them into a college graduate like Berkeley does. Chico though takes the B student, and turns them into a college graduate. And Chico State does it for less tax money than do the overpaid professors (and underpaid teaching assistants) at UC Berkeley. Chico State’s true honor is hidden, and US News and World Report got it wrong when they published their college rankings last September, and informed us that again, UC Berkeley was the number one national public university while Chico State didn’t even make the list.

A Little Sociology: The Relationship between Status and Achievement

But this paper is not only a rant about Chico and Berkeley. Rather it is about the nature of status and how alongside market forces status distinctions shape what colleges do and think. I think Chico would best Berkeley in a fair comparison of undergraduate quality of education, but then I teach at Chico, and naturally take some pride in what we do. And so more than self-righteous navel gazing, this paper is also an exploration of status systems work to allocate unequally both prestige and access to opportunity outside the blind mechanisms of the labor market. As such, this paper draws very heavily on sociologist Max Weber’s[1] description of status inequality in ethnicity, occupational categories, and caste. By extension, this also applies to how college rankings reported by US News stratify America’s system of higher education.

So first a little sociology. High status means that one group (in this case Berkeley people) monopolizes goods or opportunities through the maintenance of social distance from lower status people like me at Chico State. They do this through their power to award status markers for and assign prestigious goods. Thus, despite the fact Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, teach the same things about sociology and economics, Berkeleyites are routinely paid more, more likely to sit at the head of a table, be elected to honor societies, be selected to divide up federal grants, and become the arbiters of the institutions which award academic status. More to the point, US News asks Department Chairs working at places like Berkeley to determine their own rankings as well of that of everyone else. And not surprisingly the smarty-pants from places like Berkeley tautologically conclude that since they are paid more, they must do a better job at teaching, and therefore deserve another raise because their ranking in US News is so high [2]. (When I was a chair at Chico State, I never had a phone call or email from US News soliciting my opinion about the quality of undergraduate programs at Berkeley—so goes it in the game of status). Note that this has nothing to do with an objective measure of “quality” in undergraduate programs which I wrote about in my rant. Indeed, as I said before if this were the case, Chico would beat Berkeley hands down in US News rankings. But in fact ranking has nothing to do with the anonymous mechanisms of labor markets, which Weber as writes, status systems run by US News in fact abhor.

Weber writes that the inequality between groups like Berkeley and Chico are maintained through rituals which ensures that we will coexist in a system of mutual repulsion and disdain. My rant about Berkeley’s underserved status is typical of how a subordinated group emphasizes its own honor by disdainfully pointing out the pretensions of the dominant (In this respect, I guess I am a typically ungrateful and unappreciative subordinate). But the dominant group also has its own ways of justifying its status is deserved, typically by emphasizing the acclaim it received in the past and present. The result is a rhetorical dance engaged in by both parties. Thus both universities believe that there is something unique about their own institution, and each believes its own honor to be the highest one, a fiction cultivated in avoidance strategies which mean among other things that Chico’s students chances of getting into graduate school at UC Berkeley are virtually non-existent.

But at Chico we too protect our honor from the pretensions of Berkelyites. At Chico we routinely explain how our secret honor is hidden from the rest of the world, including US News, and particularly the stigmatizing rank Playboy once gave as the number one party school in the nation. We also need to explain why so few National Merit Scholars come to Chico, and why so many of our students routinely take so few classes while working at tedious minimum wage jobs while attending Chico State.

Still Berkeley too has an image problem. They need to explain why their honor is deserved, and how pretensions of people like me are the result of envy, jealousy, and sour grapes. In short there need to be rituals and stories to explain caste dominance (Berkeley), and caste subordination (Chico). According to Weber, because Berkeley is on top of an established pecking order, Berkeley’s story is about a glorious past, which explains why logically Berkeley is the highest ranked public university in the United States. The past leaders who made the glory of Berkeley possible are heroes. There are regular remembrances of these heroes on special days, in the names of buildings, scholarships, and other tokens acknowledging their role in creating the deserved glories of the present. The message is clear to Berkeley grads: they are special and deserving of their exalted place in the world. And by implication the rest of us are losers.

At Chico, the stories and rituals are of course different. They are not be about a glorious past (we don’t have a plausible one), but about why our clandestine honor is routinely hidden and ignored. What is more, buried in the story we tell about ourselves will be an assertion that one day we will overcome the odds, and our secret glory will be revealed.

Chico’s Story of Hidden Honor

At Chico State, I routinely explain our position in higher education’s hierarchy to prospective students and new faculty. The story follows much along the lines I ranted about above. I describe the easy access to faculty Chico students have, the smaller classes, and point out that UC Berkeley has none of these. Because I am an alumnus of the University of California (Davis in my case), I typically tell visitors that I learned to teach undergraduates at the UC, but I became good at it only at Chico. The ideology I describe is one that explains away Chico’s stigma as a second rate public university in a manner which highlights our special, albeit unnoticed skills. Our mythology about our hidden honor goes something like this: If you would look closely at Chico State student, you will find that they work harder in the “real” world. After all Berkeley students tend to be richer and more spoiled. And because they have better high school grades they are more likely to have scholarships. This means that they rarely are exposed to the reality of a job in the dining commons, local restaurant, or camp counseling during the summer. Chico students also write better because real professors (not graduate students) grade their papers. And because all the hyper-competitive self-absorbed nerds from high school went to Berkeley, our students develop collaborative relationships in classes. This means that Chico State students are better prepared to be part of the teamwork found in the modern workforce. Chico’s applied hands-on approach encourages students to be involved in businesses, schools, and government as “real people” not theoretical drones ungrounded in the real world. Our students will never labor as a heartless drone holed up with a calculator screen and spreadsheets for fifty years as would a Berkeley student. Rather they will work in offices inhabited by real people.

Wildcats

Image of Wildcats

All this of course avoids the fact that Chico students are perceived as being a bunch of drunks. But wait, there is secret honor even in this distinction. Chico’s Business School routinely brags about the “social skills” of their students. They point out that the party-school atmosphere is actually a strength; it means that employees have already learned how much alcohol they can hold and shall not—how shall I put this delicately?—throw upon the lap of a client during their first year on the job as would a socially unsophisticated nerd from Berkeley.[3] In short, we at Chico have a providential mission to save the culturally inept Berkeleyites from their own social cluelessness. Whole organizations would undoubtedly collapse if it were not for the strategically placed Chico State student who quietly and competently smooth’s large egos, and connects the human elements necessary in every organization. Or to borrow a Biblical saying, we believe that in the end days, the last will be first, and the first will be last; in the end, say in fifty years, the honor of Chico State will be recognized by even US News while presumably Berkeley will be noticed only by Playboy. Undoubtedly, this will happen when one of my colleagues is plucked from obscurity and awarded a Nobel Prize in something, or an alum is elected president of the United States. After all if Eureka College’s Ronald Reagan, and Texas State Teachers College’s Lyndon Johnson can become president, why not someone from Chico State?

Steeped in History

Kingdoms of This World…

While typically Berkeley and Chico faculty do not run in the same circles, I can still walk on the Berkeley campus, and also browse their web-site. What you find is a presentation of self that is different from Chico’s. Berkeley doesn’t dream of Nobel Prizes, they already have them. Indeed, the list of current Nobel Prize winners (7) is only three clicks from Berkeley’s home page (along with the 13 deceased prize winners, and then one more click to the 24 alumni winners—who says that nerds aren’t the best?). Department rankings are only a click or two in another direction, where a page indicates, “In the most recent National Research Council study, 35 of Berkeley’s 36 graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields in terms of faculty competence and achievement.” In case you don’t have a web-browser, go on the UC Berkeley campus, and you will see ostentatious privileged parking places reserved for Nobel Laureates. Buildings are named for outstanding scientists including those who developed the atom bomb in World War II, rich alumni like William Randolph Hearst, and other heroes who have graced Berkeley’s campus. In short, while Chico’s promise is still in the future, Berkeley’s Kingdom is in the here and now and they are going to let everyone know about it. The University’s web page preens with history, leading UC Berkeley to conclude with the self-satisfied observation that “[Already] In 1966 Berkeley was recognized by the American Council on Education as ‘the best balanced distinguished university in the country.’” Nothing is shy, or hidden, or clandestine here. It is out in front for all to admire.

The implication of all this self-promotion for Berkeley’s undergraduates is that only the very best will be admitted; only the intellectual elite will be given admission to the hallowed grounds. Sometime in their first week on campus, it will be made clear to them that because Berkeley is the best, they too must be the best, a form of tautological reasoning that insecure 18 and 19 year olds embrace enthusiastically. And indeed they are the best, at least in terms of high school grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and the other things that UC Berkeley and others at the top of the current status heap value highly. And this in turn justifies the self-satisfied assertion that only the best recognizes the best, and in this way the inequality of the American higher education system is perpetuated, seemingly ad infinitum. And as a result throughout their careers, they will give each other pay raises, jobs, honors, appoint each other to boards of directors, in the belief that being of high status is an end in and of itself.

But There are also Kingdoms of the Coming World…

None of the things that Berkeley brags about on its website addresses the undergraduate excellence like small classes, contact with faculty, etc., that we have at Chico. But even I will admit that Chico is weaker on one thing: presentation of our history. There is no “history of Chico State” link to our home page, nor as far as I can tell, any other place. There are no obvious lists of the accomplishments of our faculty (no Nobel Prizes) and our buildings are mostly named after obscure northern California counties. Despite over a hundred years of history, there are few illustrious faculty, donors, or alumni bragged about. On the President’s page, there is a brief mention that CSU Chico is one of the highest ranking public colleges in the West, but unlike Berkeley, the source is not cited.[4] More significantly though for an essay about the nature of status stratification, is the focus of two prominently displayed slogans on Chico State’s web page. “Today Decides Tomorrow” is mentioned in both the President’s welcome page, and is emblazoned above the door of the Kendall Hall, one of the few buildings to bear an illustrious name, former president Glenn Kendall. The second prominently displayed slogan is the campus’ latest goal, which envisions Chico as becoming a center for sustainability education. So on the home page for months was a large green hot link reading “Our Sustainable Future” and led to a list of planned programs designed to position Chico in the future.

What both of these slogans of course represent is the belief that Chico’s unseen glory is the future—tomorrow as the slogan says. The future may be ours, and by extension not Berkeley’s. Someday, Chico’s mythology goes, an illustrious figure will emerge—in Weber’s terminology a messiah figure—who will demonstrate how quietly but excellently we have been delivering for California all along. In this respect I suppose it is fortunate to have so many buildings named after obscure counties. They are sitting there, waiting to be named for people who will give Chico great sums of money, our first Nobel Prize winner, or better yet invent an even bigger bomb! Best of all, those of us who have been around awhile will get to divide up the resources differently, meaning we will get a big pay raise, putting us ahead of even UC Berkeley: in this promised future, we will be of this world, and no longer have to worry so much about tomorrow!

The Persistence of Status Stratification

Of course, the status inequality between Berkeley and Chico is hardly unique. Such inequality inherently permeates the relationships which order our hierarchically ordered modern society. I could have as easily written this essay about the relationship between Chico and the local Community College, Butte College. I am sure that the faculty there are acutely aware of the differences in pay and teaching load (i.e. they get less money and grade more papers). They will undoubtedly have the same uneasiness and chip on their shoulder relative to Chico State, and with equal faith await their first Nobel Prize winner and the arrival of a messiah figure in the form of a hundred million dollar endowment.[5] What this illustrates are not the implicit differences between Butte, Chico and Berkeley, but the nature of status and honor within society. Ultimately, status, unlike market economics, is a zero sum game. For one institution or person to have more status, another institution must have less.

As Max Weber wrote, status systems are about sorting out who has advantages and who does not. Dominant ideology aside, it is not simply the provision of rewards on the basis of the blind labor market; indeed, status systems are about the privileged avoiding the mechanisms of the blind marketplace. The labor market may in theory be blind, but employment resumes still prominently indicate what college you attend. Highlighting such a status achievement is as important in the seeking of privilege as the skills learned, and tells to others where you belong in the pre-established pecking order.

So, from Weber’s perspective, the mystery of why neither UC Berkeley or Chico State use much of their web-site plugging the quality of undergraduate education is not so baffling. Berkeley spends its time asserting the importance of past Nobel Prize winners, and Chico dreams of tomorrow because they are, respectively, a dominant university seeking to preserve its status, and a subordinate institution dissatisfied with the status quo. The good news is that while such status distinctions persist and are evident in how each institution presents itself, they are also malleable. No currently dominant institution started out that way, which is why messiah figures (in Berkeley’s case the Nobel Prize winners) become so prominent in the mythologized histories they publish. Symbolically such heroes mean a lot, even though in delivering the core product of the institution—quality undergraduate classes to 19 year olds—they are irrelevant. This means that while Chico State may not be tomorrow’s dominant Berkeley, an institution like Chico, meaning anyone of the hundreds of undergraduate colleges, will find its rightful place in the sun, which in its own vicarious way gives us all hope.

[1] This essay draws very heavily on Max Weber’s classic essay “Class, Status, Party” which has been published in both From Max Weber, and Economy and Society. The essay was also recently retranslated by Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters, and others, as “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Staende, Parties,” and published in the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010).

[2] Institutional reputation, which US News calls “peer assessment” comprises 25% of US News’ measure of university quality. Reputation is calculated by asking Department chairs at research universities like Berkeley what they think of themselves, and everyone else. The chairs indicate what their gut level feelings are which not surprisingly are that people like them are better than people at places like Chico State. The other 75% of the rankings are mostly made up of qualities students bring with them from high school like grades and SAT scores (15%), how much money alumni give (5%) and faculty pay (20%). Retention rates (20%) of all the numbers US News uses is the only one that has much to do with undergraduate education, although it too is not a direct measure of the quality of classes.

[3] This is what President George H. W. Bush (Yale and Skull and Crossbones Fraternity 1948) notoriously did in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1992.

[4] Number three in the MA granting public institution category for the west—source US News)

[5] Indeed, there was a brief flurry of hype at Butte College in 2011 when rich alum Aaron Rogers quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl glory. But Aaron has yet to return the love, or cut a check, and has instead has highlighted what he apparently believes is a stronger college connection—at UC Berkeley.

Berkeley Playboy

 Images by: Brad Nail

3 thoughts on “The College Status Game: Why I Think Chico State is a Better University than UC Berkeley  

  1. Tony

    This is posted with an apology to Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff who went to UC Berkeley, but has nevertheless found his calling at one of Chico’s most energetic newspapers, The Synthesis. As Julie noted, he wrote an outstanding tribute to Marc Thompson.
    http://synthesisweekly.com/heart-fire-murder-marc-thompson/

  2. Yes, apologies to my friends and former students who graduated from or are currently attending Cal Berkeley. I am a proud CSU, Chico grad (BA/MA) and being a first gen graduate and working class person, I am glad I chose a campus that offered smaller classes and more one-on-one time with my profs. I also believe that community college is a good place for first gen transfer students for much of the same reasons that Tony promotes Chico State. Here’s what I wrote about that: http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/is-the-community-college-still-the-best-bet-for-working-class-students/

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