Probably said earlier, but this is the National Championship meet for individuals. It is also a qualifier for Worlds, but that is an adjunct to the meet, not its sole purpose. You could say, although the US doesn't do it this way, that NCAA could be a qualifier for FISU (World University Games) yet that wouldn't undermine (team championships notwithstanding) the value for any given individual athlete who doesn't qualify for FISU.
When only 9 athletes line up for a distance final (after 18 declared), then that is a problem. Being in the meet is a justification for all the of the hard work an athlete (outside the NCAA) does all year. It is a process for development, and perhaps is why there seem to be so few guys (or girls) taking the sport seriously after College. If the only way that you can stay in the sport is to get a contract (which lots of good athletes can't get), then there should be that opportunity at the annual championship meet to prove that you are trying to get to a higher level.
If I am a guy wanting to break through to the next level, seeing both the quality of the 5000m, and the low number of participants in the race, I would likely get discouraged and go run the roads, where I get my butt handed to me by foreigners anyway. The USATF seems to have misunderstood (as some posters have as well) the purpose of these annual championships. If they serve ONLY to select teams, then invite only a handful of A std people. I think that is a rather narrow meaning for the meet, however, as being a National Champion - if there is no major meet next year (no worlds or olympics) does that mean that there isn't a reason to hold the meet? -should have value for that alone, or even participating in a National meet for others with less lofty ambitions.