There was a disturbing little article in the Times a couple weeks ago about the increasing share of college and university budgets going to athletic facilities, sports teams, student clubs, fancy dormitories, and other non-instructional ends. The article quotes Ohio University Professor Richard K. Vedder giving the obvious explanation: "In the zeal to get students, [schools] are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities." Professor Vedder studies the economics of higher education, but it doesn't take a specialist to see how this is playing out.
I was riding the Q train over the Manhattan Bridge a couple days ago, and the whole car was plastered with an ad campaign for Monroe College; the ads touted the school's sports teams, its student clubs, its athletic facilities; they compared the dormitories to luxury condos; and they said very little about academics. I think it's pretty clear that what we're seeing is a higher-education system that's responding to market forces.
This is something that we want to take a close look at, because a lot of people think that the model for public primary and secondary schooling ought to be a lot more market-based. In an article from 2000, for example, U. of C. professor of economics and Nobel laureate James Heckman makes the argument in no uncertain terms: "Once it is recognized that public schools, especially inner-city public schools, are a virtual monopoly, while the U.S. university system is highly competitive, the mystery of the poor performance of the former, and the great success of the latter vanishes.".
On the surface, the decreasing emphasis on instruction in college and university budgets seems like an argument against Heckman. In fact, I think that decreasing emphasis tells a different story, not about the merits of competition in education, but about the tools by which education is measured.
Heckman's thinking on this issue is, like that of so many academics, distorted by the assumtions and paradigms of his field. Economists are used to thinking about goods whose quality is relatively easy to determine. An education is vastly more complicated than your average widget, and its quality is extremely difficult to assess. It is the tools and structures by which we evaluate it, far more than the competition or lack thereof, that will ultimately determine quality of education. Only what is measurable can be rewarded or punished by the market. In other words, it's all about incentives.