was kraatz and zajac (1996) like, totally, wrong?

Apologies in advance to my fans in Urbana-Champaign: One of the biggest criticisms of neo institutionalism in the 1990s’ was Kraatz and Zajac’s 1996 ASR article. The argument is pretty simple:

Neo-instiutionalists claim organizational survival can only happen when institutionalized orgs, like schools, adopt legitmate goals and practices. Well, turns out liberal arts colleges have very often deviated from their prescribed goal of liberal arts education by dabbling in vocational education. And it was controversial when it happened. Yet, the death rate is almost zero in that population. Take that, you silly neo-institutionalists!!! Ptttthhhh!!!

Ok, I can buy that. Then I was reading Kim Cameron’s Review of Higher Education 1983 piece about organizational life cycles in higher education. He cites a study claiming that failure rates in higher ed are *higher* than for profit seeking firms! Wowsers! That conflicted with my intuition that universities are relatively stable orgs, and it contradicts Kraatz and Zajac’s main empirical point about almost zero death rates.

Now, I don’t have time to ferret out this empirical issue, but I wanted to toss out hypotheses and see if anyone else has ideas (this is also for “Hillbilly Sociologist,” who also does higher ed), or knows the answer:

  1. Cameron and K/Z are addressing different populations. If you include all higher ed, you get all sorts of rinky dink business colleges, cosmetology schools, bible colleges, etc. And these do drop like flies. But not the Swarthmores, or Juniatas, of the world.
  2. Camerons cites work from the 1970s, when there was a great extinction in higher ed. Basically, tons of people started their own weird colleges in the 1960s and they were all dead by the 1970s. K/Z work at a slighlty later time and missed this great extinction of the early 1970s.
  3. Branch campuses? The 1960s/1970s were also a period of branch campuses, which may have closed/merged in a later period and show up as org failiures in these studies.

Matt, buddy, you out there? Can you help me out?


Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2008 at 2:33 am

6 Responses

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  1. There have been, at times, large numbers of failed higher education institutions, and most states keep lists of these saying where the transcripts are currently located (See for the New York State list). Of course, there is some confusion on the lists because they also include those institutions which have undergone name changes, but you can see that a high number of those that have closed are branch campuses or various sorts of technical and bible colleges. I suppose collecting all this data–which does include year of closing–could lead to an interesting project on the life cycles of higher education institutions, which I would love to pursue if I had time.

    I do think that Kraatz and Zajac are talking about a fairly limited pool of colleges which are less likely, all things considered, to fail in the first place. The current economic cycle, however, may prove to end this, as tuition-driven less-elite private institutions lose students to the much cheaper public sector. Times do change.



    November 14, 2008 at 3:48 am

  2. Good points, Mikalia. I’d also add that there was a boom in the 19th century, which led to a wave of extinctions by the 1920s (outcompeted by the new land grants?). I wonder if the for-profits of the 1990s will be the next wave of extinctions (or if it has happened already).



    November 14, 2008 at 4:14 am

  3. Erich Studer Ellis did his dissertation on some of this relating to gender specific institutions (Duke 1990). He only published the foundings part (in Social Forces), but he also had deaths and merger to coed. I think he has an appendix with lots of information, as I recall (we were office mates) There used to be a LOT of liberal arts colleges, and many of them failed throughout the 20th century. I doubt that their failure rate compares with for-profit firms!! That’s a silly claim, since for-profit firms has to include every mom-and-pop soda stand and bullshit junk store unless one makes onerous scope conditions on how a for-profit firm is defined.



    November 14, 2008 at 1:56 pm

  4. I know this departs from the thread of discussion, but to keep alive the idea that alternative education models can succeed, I just wanted to point out that not all the weird colleges founded in the 1960s died. Hampshire, Prescott, and New College of Florida (my alma mater) all come to mind as experiments that are still alive and kicking.



    November 14, 2008 at 2:49 pm

  5. Many of those liberal arts colleges in the 19th century closed with five years of being founded. Just so happens that the churches that started most of them found out that you actually need a stable structure to have classes in and, oh yeah…you need money to maintain the college.

    As for K/Z’s limited pool, I agree with Mikaila is right that the downturn in the economy is going to show how (un)stable these institutions are. Word has it that there at least a dozen LACs about to close in three states in the Southeast. One factor that is driving these college under relates to their ties to church conventions. Because of the strict funding and religious ties, many of these LACs are not gaining as much money as they need. Once a college severs ties with its convention, it has much more “wiggle room” and ability to grow in several different ways. I was say the ability for Wake Forest and others to sever ties while keeping its “affiliation” could help these institutions survive.

    I also agree with Fabio that the land-grants may have played a large factor in many of the institutions closing in the early part of the 20th century. As for the for-profits, there has been a shift in the number of colleges as the economy has made some groups file for bankruptcy or merge with others and close branch campuses around the country.

    On a personal note, I’d much rather see Antioch University close all of its branch campuses and funnel all of that cash back into Yellow Springs! That would be one group of data that I wouldn’t mind seeing…


    hillbilly sociologist

    November 15, 2008 at 5:05 pm

  6. Fabio,

    Thanks for making me aware of this dialogue. Your blog is great and I should read it more often. Thanks also for your attention to our work. It is encouraging that you still find the Kraatz & Zajac paper worth talking about after all these years.

    Let me make just two quick points in response to your question(s):

    1. Our paper really had nothing to say about the overall stability or longevity of colleges and universities. It is clearly the case that colleges come and go. While I have no data on this phenomenon, I would guess that failure rates are much higher in the early stages of a category, and that they are also higher in some of the more “wide-open” categories that you cite (e.g. cosmetology colleges). We studied a well-established, mature category where the average organization was approaching 100 years of age. Indeed, the category was so mature that many people became concerned about its possible obsolescence in the face of a changing environment. The “punchline” of the paper was that these mature and highly institutionalized organizations proved themselves to be so adaptable to this unfavorable environment. It was also striking that professional program adoption exerted a positive effect on enrollments and survival chances, despite its negative institutional baggage (i.e. its evident illegitimacy and categorical inappropriateness). It was not the case that no liberal arts colleges died. But, the casualties were much more limited than what many higher education observers had forecast in the early 1970s. Curriculum change appeared to reduce the risk of mortality, rather than increasing it.

    2. Point #1 notwithstanding, there is still some possibility that the paper is “like, totally wrong.” One can certainly construct a neo-institutional explanation for our findings. I have heard many such explanations in the last 12 years, and some are quite reasonable. It is also possible to construct a rational choice explanation, if one is committed to that particular theoretical perspective (which I’m not). The larger lesson that I learned from the paper is that the data never really speak for themselves. People can and do interpret empirical findings through their own preferred theoretical lenses. I am encouraged that institutional scholars are now so much more interested in agency, divergence, conflict, and change than they were in the mid 1990s. But, I am also struck that this theoretical shift appears to be mostly endogenous, rather than externally-imposed.




    Matt Kraatz

    November 18, 2008 at 10:37 pm

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