The silver lining in these high-stakes games was supposed to be the prospect that the market would exact the same kind of accountability from the nation’s colleges and universities as it did from American manufacturers. In some respects, institutions of higher learning were already coming to resemble car companies, pricing their products like automobiles complete with sticker prices, discount rates, and accompanying credit packages. Why not expect the public to follow suit by viewing colleges as commodities that could be compared and ranked for quality, if not actually tested as Consumer Reports tests automobiles? Hadn’t U.S.News and World Report done just that each year with its increasingly complex methodology since the mid-1980s?
What we expected of the market was progress on two key fronts. Better-informed consumers would make better decisions, sending the message to colleges and universities that ever-escalating prices would not be tolerated, and that educational processes that ignored customer wants and needs would no longer suffice. Like the engineers and workers in the American automobile industry, faculty would get the message that the way forward lay in a fundamental investment in educational quality. The American Association of Higher Education, and subsequently the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, had already placed teaching and learning at the center of a national reform agenda that sought a fundamental reordering of higher education’s priorities. In short, what the government and the media had failed to accomplish by jawboning, the market, in conjunction with a growing reform movement within higher education, would achieve through the forces of competition.
It just didn’t happen. The prices colleges and universities charged continued to rise substantially faster than the underlying rate of inflation. While discussions of quality and accountability have gained some renewed intensity within governmental circles, there is scant evidence that much is happening at the institutional level.
Why didn’t the market have the expected impact? Why didn’t market forces impose the kind of accountability on colleges and universities that was being imposed on hospitals and health-care providers, as well as on the manufacturers of consumer products? A variety of answers could be given--none necessarily conclusive, but taken together they attest to how the market has unexpectedly changed higher education. Just as the lattice and the ratchet recast relationships within most institutions, the admissions arms race fundamentally changed the relationship between higher education’s most sought-after customers and the institutions that were doing the seeking.