By Arnold Kling
A small number of colleges have become much more competitive over recent decades, according to Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University. But her study — published by the National Bureau of Economic Research — finds that as many as half of colleges have become substantially less competitive over time.
I am not sure that I buy Hoxby’s explanation for the phenomenon, which is that high school graduates nowadays are willing to travel farther to go to college. I suspect that high school graduates nowadays are the product of assortive mating, and college has become the ultimate status good for their parents. Affluent parents want their children to attend the colleges that the children of other affluent parents attend. This creates a highly skewed equilibrium.
Think of Harvard as like the Yankees. Enough money to buy whatever it needs to be a contender every year. Think of the typical college as like the Orioles or the Blue Jays. If they are fortunate, they can groom a few stars, but they will have too many weaknesses to be able to compete with the Yankees. Harvard’s advantages are actually more durable than the Yankees’. One can imagine the O’s or the Jays winning it all one of these years. Not so with Rutgers or George Mason.
By the way, in this metaphor, the analogue to Sabathia and Teixeira is not necessarily the faculty (even though you probably think this song is about you). I am thinking more about students. Steinbrenner U has a much larger share of outstanding students than outstanding faculty. If you have a Ph.D and want an academic position where you can encounter highly intelligent colleagues, you can go to any of at least three hundred institutions. But if you want to teach high-ability undergraduates, do not sink below the 40 most selective institutions. And if you want high-potential graduate students, do not sink below the top 10 graduate schools in your field.