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The economist Milton Friedman taught that superior products flourished and shabby ones died out when consumers voted emphatically with their dollars. But the truth of the marketplace is that shabby products can do just fine if they sustain the veneer of quality while slipping downhill, as has much of higher education. Faced with demanding consumers and stiff competition, colleges have simply issued more and more A’s, stoking grade inflation and devaluing degrees.

I don't understand what the purple part exactly means. Does it mean, 'much of higher education has the nature'?
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Much of higher education has, like shabby consumer goods, started to slip downhill in its standards as consumers go for an appearance of quality and low cost.
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Thank you Feebs11. ^^