President Obama: Don’t just charge education, change it

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Feb 27, 2009

In his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Obama made education a cornerstone of his remarks—and properly so given the urgent need to improve education in this country. Obama also made a point of saying that it isn’t enough just to give education more resources; schools also need more reform. This echoes a piece that Clay and I authored last week. Obama elaborated that offering preschool options isn’t enough, for example. We have to continue to improve them, he said, as well as cut “education programs that don’t work.”

We hope that concrete action follows this encouraging rhetoric. One thing we remain worried about is that the money in the stimulus package targeted for schools will be used to fund a continuation of the status quo. This is borrowed money. Charging education isn’t the same thing as changing it. Budgetary crises sometimes compel us to adopt disruption—which can lead to wholesale transformation of a system to something that serves many more people far better and far more affordably.

A point that Obama also touched upon in the speech is the fact that the price of tuition for post-secondary education is higher than ever. This is a big problem. But as we’ve pointed out in many posts on this site (here and here, just to give two examples), the solution isn’t to subsidize tuition to expensive colleges through scholarships or loans. If we do that, all we’re doing once again is charging education, not changing it. We haven’t made the system any less expensive; someone is still paying for it.

Industries only become more affordable through disruption. We need teaching universities and online universities to take more market share with a more affordable model to bless the lives of many more people. Subsidies will only delay the transformation to models like Andrew Jackson University and StraighterLine.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.