Selling Hope and College


Selling Hope and College: Merit, Markets and Recruitment at an Unranked School (2017)

Selling Hope and College

now available from Cornell University Press

What is interesting about “mediocre” students attending a “mediocre” college? It is almost taken for granted that college admission should be a simple matter of sorting students into meritorious bins, with the best heading off to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and the rest taking up their appropriate slots. Many assume that there is nothing really wrong with this system; aside from some hiccups, sorting people works out quite well. Standardized exams, high school transcripts, essays, recommendation letters, and interviews “objectively” capture the merit in each individual, and “prestige” is well deserved at the most elite levels. Admission to selective institutions, where extremely fine distinctions are made, is characterized by heated public debates about exactly what should count. Students line up to take every open seat, and everyone argues about what set of traits best qualifies them for that seat.

And then there is college for everyone else.

“Ravenwood” College, where the author spent one year doing ethnographic research, was a small, private, non-profit, institution dedicated to social justice and serving traditionally underprepared students. For such students, college represented hope for a better future – but an uncertain one at best. In order to survive in the higher education marketplace, Ravenwood had to demonstrate why that hope should be entrusted to them while negotiating complex notions of merit and prestige that are deeply rooted in American history. Rather than having the luxury of long wait-lists to take open seats, admission staff members were burdened by low enrollments and worked tirelessly to fill empty seats. Whether Ravenwood was mediocre or extraordinary, it had to have students.

Selling Hope and College offers a snapshot in the life of a particular type of institution as it went about the business of producing itself on a daily basis. Posecznick unpacks with ethnographic data what it takes to keep an unranked school open and running, and the struggles, tensions, and battles that members of the community tangle with daily as they walk a careful line—the line between empowering marginalized students and exploiting them.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: An Uncertain Beginning
  • Chapter 1: Extraordinary Mediocrity
  • Chapter 2: How to Sell Hope and Mobility
  • Chapter 3: It’s All about the Numbers
  • Chapter 4: Being a “Real” College in America
  • Chapter 5: Financing Education and the Crisis of Sustainability
  • Conclusion: Whither Ravenwood College