Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Free Market for Education is Adapting

I had the good fortune to send my kids to college using the Florida Pre-paid Tuition Program.  Before 529 plans, Florida’s program allowed you to make monthly payments while your kids were growing up.  When they matriculated, the program paid for 120 credit hours plus room and board for 4 years.  College was an imperative for those who wished to succeed and the program saved me a healthy 5-figure sum of money.

Recently, the Wall St. Journal published an article about a High School dropout with a clear vision of his future and how to succeed.  That may sound like an oxymoron; but it’s not.  We all know that the cost of a college degree is unaffordable for many and that many well-educated 20-somethings find themselves underemployed.  That business degree from no-name university doesn’t get us the dream job we thought it would.  The young man featured in the article had decided to be a welder.

A welder doesn’t need a college degree.  He or she needs specific training.

The mainstream press has finally caught up.

In a post to this blog last year (Don’t Send Your Kids toCollege), I described programs developed by local governments, employers and community colleges that are designed to train students to work in modern, automated factories and oil fields (where welders are much in demand).  Earlier I had written about the apprenticeship model and programs to make it work in this country (Is the Education We Want, the Education We Need?).

These nascent models are challenging the existing paradigm.  Four-year college may not be the best course for all; and, the free market is providing an alternative.  It’s creative destruction at its best.

Colleges have begun to adapt.  Non-profit corporations like Coursera, Udacity and edX have created Massive On-line Open Courses (MOOC’s) that deliver the course content of leading academics to thousands of students.  In a world where college students often attend classes on-line while lying in their dorm room beds, do we really need to fund all the overhead of maintaining a college campus?

We take for granted that universities will change their programs to offer the best value for their prospective students.  It’s a free market model to which we have become accustomed.

Now, the effort to create great high schools has begun.  In study after study, we read how American students are falling behind those in other industrialized countries.  Here in Rochester, NY, our inner city schools are ranked among the lowest in the nation in graduation rates and demonstrated proficiency upon graduation. 

Can the free market provide a solution?

This fall, inner city families will have a choice of 18 charter schools to which they can send their children.   Non-profit corporations, like e3 Rochester, have responded to the need to develop a highly qualified workforce to work in 21st Century workplaces by creating competition to the public school system.

Charter schools are very controversial.  Free public education is embedded in American life.  And, we have become accustomed to having it provided by the government.  It was promoted in the Virginia Commonwealth by James Madison before the American Revolution and by George Washington in his farewell address in 1796.  And, it’s fair to say that not all charter schools live up their billing.

But, the system is failing us – particularly in the inner cities.  New York’s state government sends the Rochester school district over $19,000 per student per year. The school district allocates about $13,000 to charter schools for those who opt for that choice.  As for the balance – well the taxpayers are covering overhead and salaries for the public school system despite their inability to provide a quality education. 

Charter schools are not a panacea.  They represent a choice. 

Parents who wish to send their children to college have choices.  Those who want a college education and who have done well in school can choose among universities -- public and private, large and small.  Why shouldn’t they also have a choice of high schools?



  1. I think a big point is missed here. Charter/private schools charge tuition to operate, sometimes exceeding what a well run state college would charge. Parents are quick to justify sending their children to these private schools because they claim better education, and parents only want what's best for their children.

    But this showcases another example of the wealthy having access to the best. As the chasm between the have's and the have not's widens in this country, where does sanity and responsibility start to take hold. My generation (baby boomer) was primarily raised on the public school system and we did fine. Were the schools better back them, or were we just less priveledged and therefore worked harder. We (baby boomers) begat generations of offspring raised on the excesses of our success - stubbed your toe, have a cookie; played on a soccer team that was winless - have a blue ribbon; don't want to eat your vegetables - let's go to McDonalds.

    If our public schools are deficient - let's try something novel. How about we get off our keesters and do something about it, not just find another way around. This benefits everyone, not just those who can afford high school tuition that costs in the thousands. What happened to that "can do" spirit in this country.

    It's not "who will lead" - it's when will we start leading again?

    1. @Tom. Charter schools do not charge tuition. They are funded by the state through the diversion of a fraction of the funds that the public school system receives per student per year. Parents whose public schools are not improving, despite political jawboning and union balderdash, should have the freedom to make a choice for their children just like the rich kids parents.

      Charter schools are not a panacea. I would favor a voucher system that widens the choices. However, parents are more likely to make sound choices for their children than bureaucrats who have been overseeing a declining venture for more than a generation.

  2. Richard Morris
    Genteel Member of the Idle Poor

    I had the good fortune to attend college when it was still a bargain, an investment by the state in the future of its residents. I paid no tuition, and only $125 a semester fees. What I invested was my time and attention far more than money. I imagine that many of today's politicians resent the fact that what I got from that education they can't take away, or use to extract further payment for their Masters.

    To the larger point, my hero, the author of an obscure tome called 'The Devil's Dictionary' defines education as : That which enables some of us to get along without intelligence; see 'Intelligence.' And: Intelligence: That which enables some of us to get along without education; see 'Education.'

    Credentials are all well and good, but not really sufficient, nor, in my view, absolutely necessary. Is a blacksmith a blacksmith because he has a piece of paper that says he's a blacksmith? Or is it because he knows how to work in iron? A spiffy certificate might help him/her sell services, but what matters is the result.

    Also, current educational structure appears so 'stove piped' that kids are corralled into 'careers' that they don't really care about but get into because they're well paid and/or offer high status. An example is the really smart folks who go to med school but don't give a damn about helping people.

    Looking back on it, what I'd advise is for kids to try a bunch of stuff, find something that feeds their spirit, and set about learning how to do that thing really well. If that includes college, fine. But all education is really self-education.

  3. Victor Moreno
    Teacher/Developer at Christopher Columbus High School

    "Is a blacksmith a blacksmith because he has a piece of paper that says he's a blacksmith?"

    This brought to mind a topic I frequently think about. America's obsession with licenses. I think part of it stems from the linguistic obsession Americans have with sticking adjectives in front of everything. You can't just talk about a guy or a cat, it has to be a black/asian/fat guy or a white/black/skinny/stray cat. Similarly you can't just call a plumber, you have to call a "licensed plumber." As if a license had sooo much meaning. Because it's truly a test of one's skill if one can cram for 2 days before a test and score 70% on a multiple choice examination where anyone could have scored 50% without studying.

    Also, if there were actually one tenth as many smart doctors as would be cause for concern, the world would be a better place and the field would be better off.

  4. Richard Morris
    Genteel Member of the Idle Poor
    Top Contributor

    While I understand your point on licenses, Victor, my take is a bit different. My read is that it's not so much of a fascination with licensing as a sense of obligation. The causes are two: America seems to generate a disproportionate number of con artists, so a license provides a certain credibility. At the same time, those who practice a trade or profession use restrictive licenses to reduce competition. Also, licensing systems that require an extended period of experience, e.g. apprenticeship or internship/residency is a sneaky way of obtaining cheap labor.

  5. Victor Moreno
    Teacher/Developer at Christopher Columbus High School

    I think you hit the nail through the board with this: "those who practice a trade or profession use restrictive licenses to reduce competition."

    That really is what it's all about.

    As for con artists, two things. First, scoring a 70% on a multiple choice exam won't deter that many con artists. Second, as a guy who grew up in Venezuela, a country where being a "hustler" (for lack of a better translation) is rolled into the social archetype of the ideal individual, I can promise you that America does not have a disproportionate number of con artists. It's just that, as in most things, Americans are better at it - American con artists also have the grand American mentality and they take cons into the billion dollar realm. Venezuelan con artists are lazy and settle for less, but every third Venezuelan is a conman.

  6. Jason G. Ramage, MS, MBA, RBP The problem is not with the provision of free public education, which I continue to support (that may be a surprise to some who know my views tend to skew away from government oversight). However, I am a staunch believer in the importance of and need for a proper education. The real problem, in my view, is there is little accountability, and unions have evolved (although that's not the right word, as people often equate evolving with progress) to protect their dues-paying members, often at the expense of quality education. And teachers themselves are generally reluctant to accept any measures designed to hold them accountable for their results.

  7. David Aitken
    Computer Software Professional

    John said "Can the free market provide a solution?" Yes, if you let it. Most politicians and activists won't let the free market solve our problems. There's not enough graft in it..

  8. Jeffery Pyle
    Senior Software Developer PAR Springer-Miller Systems

    The free market absolutely can provide a solution to this problem. Charter schools and vouchers can help bring America's education system back to the forefront through competition. Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, The Netherlands all have some type of voucher system to facilitate school choice.

    As you noted with charter schools, John, vouchers are not the sole solution (both are means to implement choice, competition and innovation) to our educational problems.

  9. David Booth


    I beg to differ. The Free Market will improve the cost/benefit equation of vocational training but it will not improve education. Vocational training is important but it is only a component of education. Unlike technical training, trying to make a liberal arts education efficient will destroy the very thing a liberal arts education is supposed to accomplish.

    I would also like to suggest a different outcome that seems quite likely: Forty years ago most States made a significant investment in making quality college education affordable for the majority of Americans. Since then they have dramatically slashed support for State schools. The advent of low-cost online programs is going to be seen as filling this gap even though the actual quality of education will be significantly lower than high quality face-to-face education. It will therefore be used as the excuse/basis for not investing in affordable residential college education. This is going to lead to a widening of the current class divide in our country. The affluent will send their children to Ivy League or other elite Private Schools while everyone else will be getting credentialed through tech based programs. Not only will the best jobs go to the children of the affluent but they will also end up running the vast majority of our major businesses. Yes, I know that this is already a reality right now but I'm suggesting that the coming educational divide will make it much worse [We should remember that the high quality public colleges of 40 years ago turned out a surprisingly large number of people who went on to become key leaders in both government and business. To pick just one example of the change, CUNY is no where near as good a school as it was when Colin Powell went there].

    Best wishes,


    1. @David. Thanks for your comments, which are well articulated. I don't have a strong disagreement with your POV. However, I would suggest that most of the young folks getting business degrees at no-name colleges would be better served getting a technical degree and job skills that are in demand.

      I would also suggest that the 20th C. university model you describe may have outlived its usefulness. Like any institutional establishment feeding at the government trough, it has become outdated. A future university campus may look like a conference center. Students might attend most classes on line but be required to show up for 1 or 2 weeks per semester to interact with faculty and other students. If 10% of the infrastructure is required, costs will be reduced dramatically. The objection most have with this idea is that students benefit from living a campus lifestyle for a few years and develop life-long relationships. True -- but, there are trade-offs with every alternative.

      The Ivy League scenario you point out is extant today (as you point out). It's noteworthy that slightly less than half of the students at Harvard are not rich and many attend for free. Check this out: