May 8 2012
Free College: A Liberal Idea Worth Trying
Carrie L. Lukas
Young Americans face tough times: Record-breaking youth unemployment—including for those with college degrees—and high levels of debt from student loans have left millions unable to live independently. They are living in Mom and Dad’s basement, putting off marriage and family, and are down-scaling their aspirations when they should be dreaming big.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, writer for the liberal The Nation, wants to provide relief for this struggling cohort. In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she proposes that we need to dramatically change the way we approach higher education financing.
She’s right about that. Unfortunately, she calls for the wrong fixes, such as Rep. Hansen Clarke’s (D-MI) bill to forgive up to $45,000 in student loan debt, and for expanding other government-subsidies so that college becomes “free” for students, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $30 billion.
Fortunately, there is a way to provide free access to college instruction without exacerbating federal and state budget deficits. And the good news is, it is already happening.
Last week, Harvard University and MIT announced a new non-profit partnership called, EdX—an online learning platform where students around the world can take their classes for free over the computer.
This is only the latest in a series of moves by elite universities to create free or low-cost online learning platforms. MIT already operates an “open university” that allows millions of web viewers to watch their classes. Last year, 350,000 students around the world participated in free online course offered by Stanford University, which announced the launch of five more free courses this spring. Princeton, Penn, and the University of Michigan are also launching similar online learning initiatives.
This should be welcome news to students, taxpayers, and pretty much everyone concerned about giving people more opportunities to learn—except, perhaps, the many people who currently earn their living off of our nation’s bloated and inefficient system of colleges and universities.
After all, when schools like Harvard and MIT start offering free engineering classes to students around the world, including the opportunity to earn certification, why should a student spend thousands of dollars to take a similar course elsewhere?
As Professor George Siemens of Athabasca University in Canada put it to the New York Times, “...if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”
While most of us aren’t university presidents, those of us who pay federal and state taxes that support our existing, grossly inefficient university system should be asking this very question. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, state governments spend $62 billion annually to support our nation’s public colleges and universities. And the federal government spends more than $180 billion annually to subsidize higher education.
All this spending is sold as necessary for educating the next generation (always a winning political sound bite), but much of it goes to support the trappings of academia, the Olympic size swimming pools and high-tech lecture halls and dorm rooms, that have little to do with actual learning. Many, perhaps even most, college students know that when they pay tuition they aren’t just paying for an education, but for the experience of college life: dorm rooms, football tailgates, Frisbee on the green, as well as some courses that add up to a major.
That’s fine if that’s what those consumers want. But they shouldn’t be surprised that the student loans they take to finance their four-year trip to college may not turn out to be the best investment, since very little of that is buying skills relevant to the modern economy. Moreover, students really shouldn’t expect taxpayers to pick up the tab for a college lifestyle that has so little to do with education.
Those students who really want to learn—to study under bright professors who will challenge them and help them hone their skills—should have options other than paying the high price of university life. Free online courses give that to them, and challenge all of those calling for greater student subsidies to reconsider what it is that they really are supporting.