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 very modest goal.
While UoPeople exists solely on-line, residential colleges can and should take advantage of volunteers. Indeed, classes intended primarily for personal enrichment (as opposed to career preparation) are possibly better taught by volunteers than paid faculty. Who better to teach Shakespeare than somebody whose primary motivation is a love of Shakespeare? Why not empower the waitress down the street (the one with a PhD in English) to teach a class on Hamlet? Just as with Amazon and Wikipedia, crowd-sourcing results in the best coming forward and leading the way. The university will need to establish rules that enable the winnowing and selection process— just as Amazon does very successfully with the customer reviews and the best-seller rankings—without in any way depriving others of opportunity.
Of course volunteers may not be grading papers. Some of that can be avoided by asking peers, with instructor oversight, to grade papers (as UoPeople will certainly be doing), but that brings us to the second requirement of a (nearly) free education. Automate almost everything: In particular, automate grading. There are today few reasons for any human being to be grading math or science homework—at least through the sophomore level. Indeed, faculty graders can be unfair and unreliable— I speak from experience.
Computer grading can be more reliable and certainly much cheaper. Even for the “softer” subjects computers can be an asset. On-line campuses at minimum run English papers through Turnitin and a grammar- and spell-checker before a grader even sees the paper, eliminating the most tedious labor. But where computerization isn’t possible, grading can be out-sourced. Western Governors University hires graders for whom both the student and the faculty member remain anonymous, and who are required to calibrate their work against other graders to ensure consistency.
This is not free, but it is cheaper than faculty graders and almost certainly better. For some classes it may even be possible to outsource grading to India or the Philippines to further reduce costs. With volunteer faculty and computerized/outsourced grading, the cost of many classes can approach zero. But there are still some classes that need to be professionally taught and for which grading is not a primary expense. I’m thinking of the core introductions to the disciplines, such as Intro to Psychology, Calculus, or General Chemistry, etc. How can these be taught more cheaply?
Let the winner take all: If my grandchildren ever decide to take calculus, I want them to have an excellent instructor. Indeed, I’d like them to have the best instructor in the country. In times past that would require attending an elite liberal arts college. But today (or more likely, tomorrow) there are more and better choices. These already exist for languages.
A quirky company called Rosetta Stone has largely put college foreign language instruction out of business. For approximately $200/semester one can learn almost any language one wants—not quite free, but much cheaper and (apparently) more effective than the college classroom. Rosetta Stone is a good example of winner-take-all; it has cornered the market not because of some government license, nor because only their employees know languages, but because they are better and cheaper. Why not do this with calculus, chemistry, psychology and all the rest? This will eventually happen. In each of those disciplines a product (or, hopefully, two or three competing products) will emerge that is manifestly better than anything any individual college can produce in-house. Why has it not already happened? With foreign languages one can either speak the language or not—a short conversation will test. Whether or not one gets credit for the class is completely irrelevant.
The Carnegie Units awarded by academic language departments therefore have no value and are unsellable. With general chemistry, on the other hand, it is much harder to know whether or not the student has actually learned anything—a short conversation won’t do. Therefore the Carnegie Units are still valued, and a general chemistry class that doesn’t come with credit will find few takers. What is needed is a recognized way to establish competence independent of Carnegie Units. Once that happens the winner-take-all world quickly follows. A current project at Stanford University offers a path forward. Stanford is teaching a free, on-line class in artificial intelligence. As of August 15th news reports indicated that 58,000 people had registered. I have a friend who is signed up, and he reports that now enrollment is over 100,000.
Stanford is not awarding credit for this class—no Carnegie Units involved. Instead they are doing something much cleverer and much more subversive. Stanford will rank the students in order of how well they do in the class and send them a certificate accordingly. Coming in first in a class of 100,000 will be quite an achievement—worth far more than any Carnegie Units. That person (or more likely, thousand people) will have a credential they can take to the bank. More generally, the organizations that offer world class instruction in the disciplines can keep their own records of how well students do. This will serve as a transcript, rendering the college transcript and the associated Carnegie Units irrelevant and unmarketable. Carnegie Units are a problem, and that brings us to the final suggestion.
Break the cartel: What might be called the “Carnegie Cartel” survives because it serves the best interest of existing institutions. Like all good cartels, it reduces competition by raising the cost of entry and by fixing prices. It is enforced by accrediting agencies, appropriately run as voluntary associations of existing institutions, dedicated to keeping newcomers out. Acquiring and retaining accreditation is expensive: including faculty and staff time along with the opportunity cost, a seven-figure price tag for an accreditation visit is not an unreasonable estimate.
This does not include considerable efforts spent on on-going assessment, processes for continuous improvement, and collecting all the other ever more arcane documentation demanded by accreditors. A cartel maintains a grip on the market because it controls an essential resource that everybody needs. For the Carnegie Cartel this resource is access to state and federal financial aid—money not available to unaccredited organizations and individuals. But this resource is now threatened by several developments. First, the recession has simply reduced the funds available. Second, many shady for-profit colleges have successfully gamed the system and are now reaping a disproportionate share of funds, corrupting the entire enterprise. Third, the cartel’s currency—Carnegie Units—are no longer a very good proxy for educational achievement.
The system is flummoxed by on-line or blended learning, not to mention on-line short courses taught by volunteers. Accrediting agencies have never heard of crowd-sourcing. Finally, and most important, the advent of free or nearly free education eliminates the value of the cartel’s franchise. Federal funds are not necessary. No cartel serves the interest of its customers, and the Carnegie Cartel is no exception. It has frozen an over-priced, outmoded and dysfunctional educational system in place. It needs to be broken up. I believe that is gradually happening now.
Breaking the cartel will sharply reduce the cost of higher education across the board. A free college education for all? The UoPeople experiment is testing the free education model today. If it is successful, it will spread more or less rapidly, and even if that particular effort fails it will only be a few years before somebody tries again. So I am not presenting a radical vision for the distant future, but rather describing something that is happening now or very soon. A (nearly) free college education for everybody is not only possible, but likely.
But it will be a bare-bones education, and many students will want to pay for something more. What might they pay for? The residential college experience is valuable even if the general chemistry class is out-sourced. The college can provide accompanying laboratory experiences and/or recitation sections. Students need a peer group. Classmates form the beginning of a professional network that will last a lifetime. Attending classes and studying together is valuable, even if the classes themselves are free. Peer group facilitators will be in demand. Some classes— analytical chemistry comes to mind—require expensive equipment along with a technically trained instructor. This will never be free.
College faculty won’t get paid much for teaching, but they can still earn a living as tutors, research mentors, coaches, team-leaders, advisers, counselors. These skills cannot be computerized and students will pay for them. I am in favor of a free college education for all, despite the inevitable dislocation in the higher education community. I hope these changes happen sooner rather than later. But I am not starting a political movement. Activism is not necessary—the die is cast and much of what I predict is already taking place. Not that I’m against political activism—if you want to do that be my guest. But could I ask you to please wait for a few years until after I retire?