Free Market Rules: The Upsides

Free Market Rules: The Upsides


Left to their own devices, free market advocates seem perpetually driven to overrun formal education and turn it into a giant training program. My take is that this extreme scenario will not take place, but that free market advocates will have considerable influence education. In moderation, this could be a good outcome -- in moderation.

The key here is to balance the perpetual tension between business and education. The key question is not whether or not the Internet will ruin education by reducing the marginal cost of content to near-zero. The key questions are: to what extent should business and the free market have influence in education? How can business and education work together for mutual benefit while respecting each others’ very distinctly different values and culture?

This is going to take more thought and research on my part, but here is my current thinking about the upsides of the free market rules scenario.

1) For-profit educational institutions have played a major role in the growth of higher education. Traditional institutions of higher education (IHEs) have not shown much interest in growing quickly, and it has been painful for them when they have. As Anya Kamenetz's book DIYU points out, there are a number of disincentives for competitive IHEs to grow; most notably, limiting growth increases their competitive standing. The University of Missouri grew 26 percent over the past decade while state funding decreased during that period. Online education and for-profit schools have been the ones to provide access and increased growth.

2) The rise of online education has provided an entree for business to provide enabling products and services, which have now increased higher education dependency's on them. This has not exactly been a painless development free of culture clashes, as exemplified by the well-known "Blackborg" graphic. But online education vendors have done a reasonably decent job of servicing the market so far.

3) The role of K-12 education in college preparation and other forms of employability preparation is also considerably influenced by market forces. The adoption of technology, from computers to Integrated Learning Systems, has been an entree for market forces. No Child Left Behind and the Charter School movement have also made K-12 education friendlier to market forces. Online education has also opened a number of new doors there; vendors such as k12.com, Connections Academy, and many others see online education as providing a tremendous business opportunity.

4) I need to research this more, but I suspect that while some edupreneurs seem to be planning on profiting from the dissolution of formal education, many others recognize that the current education system is their client and thus the success of their business model depends on the continued existence and well-being of formal education as their target market.

This brings me to the phrase which has been my mantra on this topic lately: co-evolution over conquest. Business and education will need to learn how to co-evolve together in a way which is not only mutually beneficial but respectful.

When I look outside my home office window, I see a one-acre woods with many trees suffering from the scourge of southern and mid-Atlantic woodlands - kudzu. Recently, I examined these woods with the city arborist who gave me a lesson in co-evolution. He pointed out the difference between the invasive species (kudzu) and a native vine (winterberry) which grows on the trees without killing them. The winterberry stops growing short of the tree's canopy; the kudzu keeps growing until it overruns the canopy and eventually kills the tree.

Free Market Rules is kudzu; Free Market Influences is winterberry. If free market advocates can learn to co-evolve with education without strangling it, each species can prosper through mutual benefit...

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