In so much of the discussion about American universities (funding, access, college completion, student debt, etc.) one thing is generally taken for granted: American universities will continue to be the best in the world.

Even people who believe that some Asian universities will one day rival the greatest American schools, the competition is still a good thing. As Yale President Richard Levin explained in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, competing for funding based on peer-reviewed scholarship will cause all universities to produce better quality work.

But maybe it won’t happen so neatly. A recent column in The Economist looks at what the future might hold for American higher education:

Could America’s universities go the way of its car companies?

America’s commitment to research is one of the glories of its higher-education system. But for how long? The supply of papers that apply gender theory to literary criticism remains ample. But there is evidence of diminishing returns in an area perhaps more vital to the country’s economic dynamism: science and technology. The Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship, argues that the productivity of federal funding for R&D, in terms of patents and licences, has been falling for some years. Funding is spread too thinly. It would yield better results if concentrated on centres of excellence, but fashionable chatter about the “knowledge economy” stirs every congressional backwoodsman to stick his fingers into the university pie.

The problem, it turns out, is cost: “high-status institutions such as universities tend to compete with each other on academic reputation (which is enhanced by star professors) and bling (luxurious dormitories and fancy sports stadiums) rather than value for money.”

So while there’s a lot of competition between universities, it looks like it’s mostly competition for the wrong things. But as long as parents keep buying, universities have little incentive to improve.

Stars and bling cause American universities move up in college rankings, but they’re not necessarily part of the recipe for long-term strength. As the article explains, “this luxury model is unlikely to survive what is turning into a prolonged economic downturn.”

We’ve seen this before; as long as Chrysler only competed with companies like GM, it could compete on the most foolish things (oh, those fins!) but once American companies tried to compete with foreign cars, American automobile companies lost. Eventually they lost a lot.

And there’s probably not going to be a big bailout for the American university system. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer