Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A critique for a privatized education system?

The New York Times reports on the woes of the University of Phoenix - a publically traded, for profit university:

But its reputation is fraying as prominent educators, students and some of its own former administrators say the relentless pressure for higher profits, at a university that gets more federal student financial aid than any other, has eroded academic quality. According to federal statistics and government audits, the university relies more on part-time instructors than all but a few other postsecondary institutions, and its accelerated academic schedule races students through course work in about half the time of traditional universities. The university says that its graduation rate, using the federal standard, is 16 percent, which is among the nation’s lowest, according to Department of Education data. But the university has dozens of campuses, and at many, the rate is even lower.

Overall, a damning critique. And if you just skim the surface without really delving into the University's problems, one could easily interpret the failures of the University of Phoenix to dismiss the entire idea of a privatized education system.

After all, University of Phoenix put profits above education. They weasled desparate students to their campus, underpaid teachers, and provided a genuinely miserable learning environment. People have gone so far as to say that the University is a con and a fraud. The parent company, the Apollo Group's, shares have been tanking.

So what does this mean for the libertarian dream of privatized education, unecumbered from bloated government beaurocracy and freed from inequitable, gerrymandered funding? If a for-profit university has failed due to its greedy owners, surely we can't risk K-12 education to the same disasterous effect.


Some thoughts:
  1. The University System is dominated by schools that, either directly or indirectly, get public funding. There was no chance for the University of Phoenix, a traditional for-profit company, to successfully enter a market so grossly marred by subsidies. In order for the University of Phoenix to succeed, it would have to, in essence, create a new market by attracting the students that the university system had by and large ignored - mostly poor people that were working that probably never really had a chance to go to college.
  2. On the same token, because of the makeup of the University of Phoenix's student body, it lead to an increased penchant for dropouts and a subsequent dumbing down of course material.
  3. The University of Phoenix's product was not that good and the stock has suffered accordingly. The company is scrambling to right the ship. Isn't this how the market is supposed to work?
  4. The NYT article repeatedly mentioned how much financial aid the students were getting, presumably to enrage the reader that their tax dollars are going to greedy investors that don't educate kids. Again, the makeup of the student body is such that the students come from predominantly poor family, and therefore have more federal student aid.

We'll see where this goes from here. I'm not really defending the University, because it seems clear that as a business, they're failing. But don't be too quick to write off a voucher system because of one struggling university.

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