Competition is Funny Sometimes: College Edition

Via my brother Steve, an article by Scott Carlson of the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Even in the midst of a national financial crisis, the buildings seemed to get more opulent. The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently noted the “resort living” on college campuses. A new residence hall at Saint Leo University, in Florida, features a 2,100-gallon aquarium, a relaxation room with futuristic “spherical nap pods,” big-screen televisions, and more, according to The Tampa Tribune. A Saint Leo sophomore called it “ridiculously amazing.”

Other people—particularly those predicting a shakeout for higher education—might call it just plain ridiculous. Shouldn’t higher education put more money into, um, education and less of this stuff?

Turns out: no. The scholars call these places "country club colleges," less selective but opulent.

But one aspect of their conclusion is startling: The less-selective colleges might actually harm their enrollment by spending more on instruction.


“One important implication is that for many institutions, demand-side market pressure may not compel investment in academic quality, but rather in consumption amenities,” they write. “This is an important finding given that quality assurance is primarily provided by demand-side pressure: the fear of losing students is believed to compel colleges to provide high levels of academic quality. Our findings call this accountability mechanism into question.”

In other words, one would think that market forces would reward colleges that invest in teaching and academics, and that we would have better colleges over all because of that market pressure. But it turns out, the researchers say, that prospective students of the less-selective colleges may care more about investment in the “resort” experience of college, and hence academic quality may not be enhanced by market forces.


1. One of the scholars who did this study is Brian Jacob. I remember him wandering around Dunkin Donuts back in the day when he was a doctoral student at Harvard. I think doctoral students drink more coffee than normal people. He's a really good thinker. Here's the paper.

A recent paper by other scholars found that moving kids from poor neighborhoods to middle class neighborhoods doesn't help their academics. Fine, but Brian J found in a different study that it does help them stay alive.

2. At this very moment, I'm holding an application to join the beautiful Boston University gym a few blocks away. The b-ball courts are perfect and you can find pickup almost anytime. There are also several gleaming exercise machines that I have no idea how to use.

3. Some folks who oppose school choice say it's because poor parents make bad choices. By that they mean they a parent might choose Convenient School A over academically stronger School B.

Set aside the fact the government often makes bad choices too. I sort of work for the government, and I make a bunch of them.

Instead, think about this. All individuals -- rich or poor -- make bad choices sometimes. By "bad choice" I mean valuing what they want over what you want or I want...since of course you and I know best.

However, I'm not sure that we will see a policy effort to block rich kids from choosing country club colleges, even though it's subsidized by the government. We will, however, continue to see efforts to deny poor parents choices.