A Free College Education For All
Guest Post By: Daniel Jelski
A free college education for all? That’s been the dream of many an idealist. President Obama certainly shares this goal— a year ago he said “The single most important thing we can do is to make sure we’ve got a world-class education system for everybody. That is a prerequisite for prosperity.” State university systems, particularly in New York and California, are tasked to provide all students— even those of limited means—access to higher education. Many, especially on the political Left, view public support of education as a cornerstone of a free and prosperous society. Thus the current economic hard times have produced great distress. Both SUNY in New York and the three California state systems, along with many others, have been forced to dramatically raise tuition. Many states have cut back on support—the sad and familiar joke being that public institutions have gone from being state supported to merely state located. Federal funds are also threatened: graduate students will no longer receive interest deferments, earmarks (a traditional source of money for higher education) are no longer available, and government grant money is increasingly harder to come by. More financial woe looks likely in the near future. On top of this many questions are raised about the value of higher education. Is college teaching what students really need to know? Will it really be able to guarantee graduates a place in the middle class as it has done in the past? Do the benefits of college justify the increasingly burdensome student loan debt that our nation’s youth is now saddled with? Higher education, already unaffordable, may no longer be worth the cost. It all looks pretty grim.
And yet I believe we are on the cusp of a new world in higher education – a world that can provide a free (or nearly free) college education for all. The recession has brought higher education’s woes into sharp relief, but it has not caused them. Colleges, designed for the world in the 1960s and 1970s, have not changed with the times. Colleges are still run as top-down bureaucracies rather than bottom-up communities. Outside of government, few other organizations operate this way. Anybody can publish and sell a book at Amazon.com. Google and Apple let their customers determine most of their content. Walmart empowers even its most junior employees to order products and set prices. Wikipedia allows any reader to write or update an article. Higher ed’s institutional structures aren’t like that at all, featuring top-down, inefficient, bureaucratic command management. Maintaining this old-fashioned system is ever more expensive and increasingly impossible. So here are some suggestions for how higher ed can imitate successful organizations, improve quality, and reduce costs even to zero. Let volunteers teach classes: This isn’t simply about saving labor costs (though it is that, too); it is primarily about crowd-sourcing. Just as Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia are able to tap into the expertise of millions, colleges can do the same by blurring the distinction between faculty, student, town, and gown. In an on-line environment there is no limit on the number of classes that can be taught, and no reason to restrict class offerings to only those taught by paid employees. Founded in 2009, University of the People will exclusively use volunteer faculty. Indeed, the distinction between faculty and student is hopelessly blurred in their model. As a result they aspire to be a tuition-free university open to any high school grad anywhere in the world. Initially they are offering programs in business administration and computer science, and are seeking regional accreditation. While there is no tuition, there are some fees, but the total cost for a bachelor’s degree will likely be a few hundred dollars, depending on where you live. By comparison, Texas’ initiative to offer bachelor’s degrees for $10,000 looks like a...
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