Education for Liberty

Last week, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation held its annual Liberty Forum in New York City. The foundation’s mission is to strengthen freedom around the globe by sponsoring institutes that promote limited government. Among the panel discussions at the two-day program was one entitled “Disruptions in Higher Education: An Opportunity for the Freedom Movement?”

I spoke on that panel, along with Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and Ines Calzada Alvarez, Secretary General of Online de Madrid Manuel Ayau, an organization that provides online economics education in the free-market tradition of Manuel Ayau. (Ayau founded the University Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala.)

The consensus was that the impending disruption in higher education—the bursting of the bubble and subsequent changes in the way students learn—should indeed create opportunities for education to advance liberty.

My argument was that it will do so because the old model of higher education was (and is) heavily stacked in favor of the proponents of collectivism, but future education will not be. To a large extent, our higher education system has been colonized by faculty and administrators who are sympathetic to the expansion of government and unsympathetic to laissez-faire. College students were (and are) much more likely to hear from Marxists than from conservatives or libertarians.

In that old model, a student faced the “bundle” problem. Once the student chose a school, he or she had to choose from the courses and majors offered there. It was as if when you walked into a grocery store, you were allowed to buy either Bag A or Bag B, when both bags contained many items you’d never want to buy individually.

When I was an undergraduate, for example, the only macroeconomics course was taught by a dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian who was absolutely certain that federal authorities could manage the economy to give us high GDP and low unemployment. There was no alternative to that misinformation-laden course, except taking a different major.

Consumers don’t like having to buy bundles, whether it’s food, cable-TV, or education. They would much rather shop for the best and buy only what they want. New developments in education are making that increasingly possible.

Students will be drawn more toward schools that permit them to shop around for the best courses and transferring those credits from other schools rather than requiring them to take their entire bundles. Perhaps in time the very concept of a college degree will change, as students assemble online portfolios of their learning and accomplishments (certificates, badges, and other indicators of capability) to show the world.

In that new educational environment, the old constraints such as accreditation and transferability will matter less and less. None of the huge number of students who signed up for Sebastian Thrun’s initial Udacity course on artificial intelligence cared in the least that Udacity is not accredited. Thrun’s reputation was all that mattered.

With students shopping around for educational products that are high in quality as well as interesting, the market will be open. The old course offerings with their mild-to-severe leftist orientation will have to compete with courses that are balanced or take an intelligent pro-liberty view.

In my comments, I mentioned one such course—an introductory economics course taught at Wake Technical Community College and Florida State University that overturns the usual way of teaching economics. Eliminating much of the graphs and math, the course concentrates on economic concepts, such as the role of incentives and comparative advantage. Understanding those concepts is a big step toward understanding the value of liberty. The course designers intend to “scale up” its availability.

The other two panelists have both embarked on online education. Professor Cowen recently launched, with his faculty colleague Alexander Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution University. The first course available on MRU is on development economics. As Professor Cowen explained in his talk, the cost of producing the material for the site was almost zero (if you don’t count the time the creators put into learning all they know about their subject) and students can partake of their offering for free.

At present, there is no official credit for taking an MRU course, but Professor Cowen said that he would be happy to write a personal letter of recommendation for any student who demonstrates that he or she has mastered the material. That might be a better advertisement for the student than merely completing another official college course where professors are known to frequently dispense gift grades.

In her presentation, Ines Calzada Alvarez explained how her organization, OMMA, brings the great economic insights of Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and other giants to students through online education. As is the case with Marginal Revolution University, her budget is very small, but that is not a barrier to education.

We are at the beginning of a discovery process in the new world of boundary-less education. Among the questions “edupreneurs” will seek to answer are:

  • How can we create educational products that will most appeal to students? For example, what maximizes the likelihood that a young person will want to spend time learning about development economics rather than playing Halo?
  • Is it better to work within the framework of existing higher education institutions, or to go around them?
  • How can we best certify that students have in fact learned course material?
  • And last but not least, can the business community be persuaded to break its bad habit of screening out individuals just because they don’t have the standard college credentials and evaluating them on the basis of other indicators of competence?

Change is undoubtedly coming to higher education. That’s good news for many reasons, but especially because it will mean that students won’t have to go through institutions that wrap them in socialistic thinking. They will be able to choose professors who understand the virtues of freedom. Seize the opportunity!