I have been planning to write this article for over a year after this Twitter discussion. Well, I had hoped to write about it before then, but that discussion renewed my interest. The idea of “free college” seems to be very political – it shouldn’t be.
We don’t get political about free high school. There was a time when a high school degree was acceptable for many white-collar jobs. When I went to college in 1994 that was the new normal. I can’t think of one kid in my class that didn’t go to college – but being in the higher academic classes, this is just my subjective view. I was fortunate and got a full scholarship, but my family had saved up for a long time for college costs.
Tuition wasn’t so bad in those days. It’s really become a big problem in the decade or two. This 5-minute video explains what’s wrong, but in general, loans became too easy, which meant that colleges could simply keep raising prices.
It’s a good time to bring this topic back. Harvard recently announced that all classes for the 2020/2021 year will be online. There will be no in-class instruction. Tuition however will still be around $50,000 a year. Harvard also has a $40 billion endowment. Harvard has had free online courses for years. I would hope that for all that extra money, the quality of education would be much, much better at the university. There would certainly be teacher interaction, which presumably is not available in the free courses. (Note: I haven’t taken any of the free courses.)
In my opinion, it seems strange that there’s such a price difference between the two. You’d almost have to work to make the online courses particular poor and of zero value.
I know comparing all schools to Harvard is silly, but many colleges are going to be online due to COVID-19. It’s not like they chose to. It’s simply the world we live in now.
Some students are rightfully pointing out that most school’s online tuition is a fraction of the cost for in-class tuition. For example, you can get a Master’s degree for $7,000 at Georgia Tech (and these cheap advanced degrees should be the future.) If classrooms are closed, what value do they get for the rest of their money?
How Could Free College Work
Many people object to the idea of free college because they presume they’ll have to foot the bill in the form of increased taxes. Yes, that would have to happen just like how taxes fund our public schools now.
Option 1: Free Online College
What if the version of free college isn’t what we viewed as the traditional college experience. What if there was a national curriculum of free courses just like the ones Harvard already offers. There are a lot of these classes already out there. MIT is another university that has free courses. To create a complete national curriculum, you’d have to fill in some gaps and maybe recreate the content (or license it) for legal reasons.
For lack of a better name let’s call this the National Online College. We should be able to find some marketing folk who can make it sound more exciting. (I’m obviously not one of those people.)
Creating many of these classes is a one-time cost. While some subjects like artificial intelligence will change over time, calculus is calculus. Spanish and Spanish literature doesn’t change much. Since there are already online learning resources of foreign languages with resources like Duolingo.
Additionally, there should be placement exams where students could earn credit for any previous study or knowledge. The goal here would provide students with a short path to a degree and not make them have to do years of busy work for the sake of earning the degree. Designing these exams would also be a one-time expense, though there would be some minimal annual maintenance.
I know, I know. Online learning is terrible. I just completed months of teaching my 6 and 7-year-olds through their tablets. Online learning is particularly bad for young kids. I think college students are able to handle it better. If college students knew it will get them a job that pays more money, that will provide a lot of motivation. My young kids can’t make the connection of education to financial stability to an easier life.
My National Online College idea would obviously not be the ideal college. It’s impossible to be ideal and online. However, it would be designed to be the lowest cost option – so low that it can be funded with minimal increase in taxes. That means that it shouldn’t be political and get strong support from the government.
The big question most have is, “Would this National Online College degree be worth anything? Can I get a good job with it?” That would be up to employers. It should be worth something if it’s designed well and if the exams are trusted indicators of proficiency. This might also be an area we could use marketing to overcome initial resistance. In the past there’s been a stigma against people who didn’t go to traditional colleges – this could be instead be marketed as students who are wise enough to avoid mountains of debt.
Currently, employers use a university’s name and reputation for validation of the job candidate. That can work for getting qualified people, but it feels more and more like the elite school’s value comes at the cost of years of debt. The National Online College would provide another alternative, even if it wasn’t the best learning environment, would help level the field.
Option 2: Free Community College
The taxpayers who say, “We don’t want to foot the bill for free college” aren’t going like this one. However, it’s already partially in place in a few states. For example, my home in Rhode Island has a free college plan. It isn’t open for all income levels, and it is a community college for an associate’s degree.
It’s a start and the governor is looking to expand it. This would improve on the National Online College idea above providing live instruction (assuming we return to pre-COVID-19 conditions). The community college experience would be better than National Online College one and they could work together. For example, after going to community college, you would likely be in a better position to score better on the National Online College’s proficiency exams.
Option 3: Free College, Cancel Debt
This is the option that you hear from Bernie Sanders. I’m for it with some restrictions – such as colleges not building lazy rivers. (There’s some discussion that the amenities don’t raise the price of colleges much – but this spending simply isn’t compatible with the idea of free college.)
However, I realize that this is a tough sell for many taxpayers. I think we could do it with Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. Those ideas seem too progressive at this time.
The other reason why I don’t like this option as much is that it keeps colleges in a ranking system. It would be great if society could get to a place where a person passing the National Online College test gets the same opportunity in the workplace as someone who went to Princeton.
I’m not an expert on education. I don’t even pretend to play one in the government like Betsy DeVos. (Note: She is wealthy through ownership MLM/pyramid scam Amway.) There are many people with more experience in this area than I am.
However, I do have a few advantages over many of those people. I can simply anonymously blog about ideas freely without any political repercussions. I also don’t have to do any of the work in changing the system. Lastly, I’m sure things get very complex at the low level of implementing such a plan. Finally, at 1300 words, there’s no expectation that this is a complete solution.
Thanks for the good discussion. I certainly don’t have the answers but as some point it needs to be solved. People shouldn’t take on large amounts of debt for college, but that’s the new normal. College was very manageable in 1981 when i started, now it’s crazy.
I like both options, 1 and 2. A degree doesn’t really matter once you work for a few years. You only need to get a foot in the door. Hopefully, the employers will give these programs a chance.
Lazy Man says
“You only need to get a foot in the door” – Thanks for summing up my thoughts exactly. I’d like to see some proficiency test (like the SATs, but in an area of study) that serves to get your foot in the door.
I wonder how online learning works for science and engineering. My kid are 12 and 10, and they’ve had a pretty good experience with online learning. The fact that they are good students and tech savvy (but who isn’t, at that age) certainly helps.
But what does online learning use to take the place of chemistry experiments? Is there some sort of virtual Bunsen burner that allows student to perform experiments and learn from their mistakes? (“Bart, you do know what happens when you mix an acid and a base?”)
This really extends to any subject that requires the use of specialized equipment.
Lazy Man says
I’ve thought about physical labs a little bit and I think community colleges can fill the role for a “user fee.” If high schoolers have access to Bunsen burners, we surely should be able to do that for college students. Very expensive equipment, such as superconducting super colliders would be more difficult and may be limited to master’s or doctorate programs.
In general, I view it to be like user fees for sports teams in high school. While those can certainly add up for some families in high school, the hope would be that these costs could be minimal for the few subjects that require them – especially in comparison with the overall cost of college.
I had a long lengthy response to this column and decided it was not worth the response. Free is relative, and the term college is relative (vs. attending college, college classes, university experience, etc.) Degree seekers should pay as they are utilizing university resources, but it shouldn’t cost as much as it is. Free online classes should be offered for non-degree seekers.
The honest answer to me is that too many universities are trying to be everything to everyone, and spending billions to expand their campuses to do that. When I was in school, if you wanted certain degrees, you went to certain universities. Now every university has every degree, and all fight to get up there in the rankings. Because of these fights, they fight over the limited pool of professors, research grants, etc. and drives up the costs.
Lazy Man says
If you can’t earn a degree online, the workplace will still be a “have” and “have-not” for those who paid to go to a physical college and those who studied online for free. My aim is to eliminate this, creating a path for people without the money to avoid years of financial burden.
I do agree that universities try to be everything to everyone, but never thought that it was a significant part of the problem. I suppose it is, but I just never thought to look at it that way. I just wonder if the typical 18 year-old knows what they are going to do for the rest of their life.
I’m still waiting for the supporters of option 3 to explain how they make it fair and equitable for those of us who already paid for our tuitions.
I knew that college was the goal, so my parents saved and worked to make it possible to not incur debt to do so.
Lazy Man says
Not everyone has parents who can save and work to make college possible, so I’m not sure how that’s fair and equitable for those people, right? That’s a problem that’s likely to get worse, because the new parents of today are paying off their loans, much greater housing costs, parents increased medical bills, their own retirement, etc. so saving for their kids’ colleges is difficult.
As a supporter of option 3, I would say that life isn’t fair and equitable. The tax laws changed recently and it wasn’t fair and equitable to a lot of people.
I agree that we should strive for fair and equitable when possible, but sometimes you just have to make improvements anyway. For example, if a new cancer treatment comes around, I don’t think, it’s unfair that it wasn’t there for my father who died at age 45. I think, “Hey, that’s something that could help me or my kids out down the line.”
There are many indirect benefits of free college that you might enjoy. It likely could lead toward less crime. It could lead to cheaper medical and lawyer bills.
I completely agree. I’ve “missed out” on getting debt cancelled during every government giveaway during my lifetime. I do know that I was fortunate in many ways to not end up needing those and try to balance my luck, good fortune, hard work, etc. when looking at those things.
Option 3 seems appealing to me. However, I think there’s also systemic issues that need to be addressed first, such as putting more pressure on departments that produce large numbers of relatively unemployable degree-clad graduates. This does get into the whole “is college the same as vocational school” but one of the big issues with the student loans is students being able to get them in exchange for degrees that don’t provide enough to pay them off.