Small investors are just the business

Lucy Hodges

The education market is wide open and huge profits are waiting to be made, reports Lucy Hodges.

It may seem far-fetched, but education is hitting the business press as an area in which the ordinary investor stands to make a fast buck.

Earlier this month, readers of the Washington Post found themselves being seduced by the headline: "It's Elementary: Buy Education Stocks Now". The author, James Glassman, said his candidate for the hottest industry in 2005 was education.

It did not take a genius to predict that the education managers of today would not still have a near-monopoly into the next century, he added. They had done a bad job - and the money to fund their inefficiencies was running out.

Michael Moe, who runs the growth-company group at Lehman Brothers and follows education stocks, believes that the education market today looks much like the health-care business of 10 to 15 years ago. One sign of the way things are going is that Michael Milken, the former junk bond king, is hopping on the bandwagon.

He plans to build his own education company. "If we are successful, I believe you can have a $50 million (Pounds 31 million) or $100 billion company in the field of education," he said.

All of which should make putative education entrepreneurs sit up and take note. At present, the education industry is small, but it is growing. It can be divided into four sections: school management; private school chains; technical colleges; and learning programmes.

The big name in school management is Education Alternatives Inc, a company in Minneapolis, which runs nine schools in Baltimore. EAI will soon be running five schools in Hartford, Connecticut.

This year the share price of EAI has fallen sharply - by 70 per cent - after reaching a high in 1993. Mr Moe believes it could double this year.

EAI has the field almost to itself, except for Christopher Whittle, a businessman from Knoxville, Tennessee, whose Edison Project is becoming a competitor. The project has recently received an injection of venture capital money.

Edison aims to operate public schools by contract with school districts. It will begin with three or four schools next year, including one in Boston.

The financial wizards think this market is wide open, and that, if firms take only 20 per cent of primary and secondary school revenue 10 years from now, they will be grossing about $100 billion.

People putting their money into private school chains bank on voucher schemes taking off more than they have already. In Ohio, the governor has signed a bill to create a pilot voucher scheme in Cleveland, helping parents to send children to private schools.

The best-known private school chain is Nobel Education Dynamics Inc, based in Pennsylvania, which plans to own 52 schools by the end of the year.

Private technical colleges are being set up, offering degrees up to MBA level and specialising in training for well-paid, high-tech or medium-tech jobs. The best company is thought to be DeVry of Oakbrook, Illinois, which educates 15,000 students on 13 campuses.

The trick seems to be to keep the fees low. Tuition costs only $6,000 a year. Last year the company made $12 million in profits.

Learning programmes could be the best place for investments. The industry requires little capital and the technology it uses is becoming cheaper. TRO Learning Inc of Schaumburg, Illinois, is one company being watched. It sells interactive computer programmes for schools and community colleges.

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