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Scholars See Higher Ed Changes Advancing Liberty

As students gain more freedom to shop for classes, ideological balance should follow

In October, 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 organizations that promote limited government.

Among the panel discussions at the two-day program was one titled “Disruptions in Higher Education: An Opportunity for the Freedom Movement?”

The Pope Center’s George Leef spoke on that panel, along with professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and Ines Calzada Alvarez, secretary general of a Spanish organization that provides online economics education in the free-market tradition.

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

Leef argued that the traditional model of higher education was (and is) heavily stacked in favor of the proponents of collectivist ideologies, but future education will not be. The processes that put the collectivists in place and kept them there are disappearing.

In that old model, a student faced the “bundle” problem. Once the student chose a school, he had to select among 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.

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

According to Leef, students will be drawn more toward schools that permit them to shop around for the best courses and let them transfer credits from other schools rather than requiring them to take their entire bundles at a single location.

Some believe that the very concept of a college degree will change, as students assemble online portfolios of their learning and accomplishments to show the world.

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, Leef suggested, will have to compete with courses that are balanced or take a pro-liberty view.

One such course is an introductory economics course designed by professor Kelly Markson, with the help of the Pope Center, 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 other two panelists both have embarked on online education. Cowen recently launched Marginal Revolution University. The first course available on MRU is on development economics. As he explained, the cost of producing the material for the site was almost zero and students can partake of it for free.

At present, MRU students don’t receive credit, but Cowen said that he gladly would write a personal letter of recommendation for any student who demonstrates mastery of 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, Calzada Alvarez explained how her organization, Online de Madrid Manuel Ayau, brings the economic insights of Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and other thinkers to students through online education. Her budget is small, but online education can have an impact even with a small budget.

All the panelists agreed that change is coming to higher education, and they were hopeful that those changes could serve to advance the cause of liberty.

Duke Cheston is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.