Competition and Education

Competition is one of those magical thinking words that economic conservatives evoke whenever they don’t have a solution to a problem. In education, this little bit of alchemical cognition brought us the idea of the charter school as the solution to class inequity– oh, wait, I meant “the poorly performing public schools.” I think, though, that in a narrow sense the proprietary education industry could really benefit from increased competition– within regulatory limits.

The first limit– and it should be a limit that applies to all higher education– is a cap on student debt. (Here’s an NPR piece on the clearly misguided efforts to stop this reform.) Commercial media, as well as NPR, makes this problem seem unique to proprietary education but in fact this has been a social blight for at least twenty years. I doubt that the legislation will go as far as I would like it to go, but at the very least we should accept the principle. We can make it tougher next.

I think the proprietary education industry has fooled itself into believing that it needs the current student loan system to survive. We do need the moral credibility– crucial in education– that supporting the limit would provide. I have a feeling, though, that the industry won’t wake up until it faces real competition in the form of large-scale non-profit online education. We see ourselves as the hare, but as a piece from Philadelphia suggests, the turtle is moving steadily and slowly forward ($500K grant marked for cyber learning in Beaver, Allegheny counties).

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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