How much should a college education cost? According to the College Board, the average cost of earning a degree at a private, four-year university is now more than $100,000. If tuition prices continue to rise as quickly as they did during the past decade, a college degree will cost more than $200,000 by the time today’s third-graders are applying. That price tag is enough to cause most parents to break into a sweat.
Is a college degree really worth this cost? Some bright minds think Americans are paying way too much. In fact, Bill Gates — one of the country’s most famous college dropouts — thinks the cost should be closer to zero. He told an audience last summer: “Five years from now, on the Web, for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
One could argue that the bright future Gates described is already here. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology already has put virtually all of its instructional materials, including lectures, online and made them available for free. Other schools, including many elite universities, are following suit. For example, using iTunes University, you already can download free lectures from Stanford, Yale and dozens of other colleges.
The trend of a free and open higher education system will revolutionize higher education, and fundamentally change the way the world learns. As Gates argues, someday soon, anyone with Internet access — anywhere in the world — will be able to learn from the best professors and teachers.
Of course, access to instruction isn’t the only, or even primary, reason why most American students go to college. A big part of what today’s students are purchasing for that $100,000 is the degree itself — the credential that signals to employers and society in general that one is able to learn and can survive four years of classes and exams.
But alternative credentialing systems, like AP tests and CLEP exams, are already in place. And the realization of Gates’ vision of free online higher education surely will be followed by new credentialing systems that allow people who learn online to prove their accomplishments and signal their value to employers.
Professor Vance H. Fried of Oklahoma State University addresses the opportunity for entrepreneurial solutions to the college affordability problem in his new book “Better/Cheaper College: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Rescuing the Undergraduate Education Industry.” Fried argues that innovative business models have the opportunity to revolutionize the college sector by offering lower-cost models. He contends that entrepreneurs could create a college model that costs less than $8,000, and perhaps even be tuition-free by harnessing government and philanthropic support.
Oklahoma’s forward-thinking elected officials now have the opportunity to expedite the arrival of the free college era, and — in the process — solve a major problem for American families while providing big relief for taxpayers and federal and state budgets.
For too long, efforts to solve the college access and affordability problem have focused on increasing subsidies — grants, loans and scholarships — for students to attend college.
Increased student aid subsidies have contributed to today’s high tuition prices. Instead of continuing this failed approach — an approach we simply can no longer afford — elected officials should focus on dramatically lowering the costs associated with earning a college education. For example, Gov. Rick Perry recently called on the Texas higher education system to develop a new program through which students can earn a college degree for only $10,000. Presumably, this initiative will take advantage of the exciting efficiencies that are happening thanks to online learning.
Policymakers in Oklahoma City should follow Gov. Perry’s lead. The governor and state Legislature should require state-funded universities to follow schools like MIT — putting lectures and course content online for free. Like Texas, state higher education systems should create new credentialing systems to allow people who learn online to demonstrate their mastery and work toward a degree.
Few of our country’s big problems have simple and inexpensive solutions. We can’t afford to pass this one up.
DAN LIPS is a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute and the author of a forthcoming report on digital learning published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. More information about OCPA may be found online at ocpathink.org.