There’s No Such Thing as “Free” College

by | Oct 1, 2019 | Learning Design


Bernard Bull, President of Goddard College, has a thoughtful post on the impact of proposed tuition-free programs on the business practices of both private and public institutions of higher education. In his post, Bull points to something that seems to get lost in both the planning and the public perception of free-college programs.

College is not, nor will it ever be, free. To make college tuition-free is to change who pays for it. Instead of the students, most proposals involve a tax-payer funded approach to covering the costs of higher education, just as P-12 schools in the United States are tuition-free, covered by tax dollars dedicated to this public good known as early childhood, elementary, and secondary education. While most public schools are funded by a combination of state and local tax dollars, proposals for tuition-free college tuition tend to focus on state and federal tax dollars covering the cost.

Yes, to paraphrase the adage made popular by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, “there ain’t no such thing as free college.” While we may shift the burden of paying for college from parents and students to state and federal taxpayers, someone still has to pay.

In fact, not only do the current free-college proposals tend to redirect attention away from the reality that their programs are not free in any way, but they also fail to address some of the fundamental challenges facing higher education today. As Bull writes in his post:

I don’t know many people who are happy about the cost of higher education today. People love to point to the 200% + increase in college tuition from the late 1980s to the present, a rise that is 8 times greater than the increase in wages over a comparable time period. The situation is intensified by the rapid rise in college debt, a burden that tempers desire for the increased opportunity and prosperity that college students hope a degree will help them achieve.

To put this in a visual perspective, we can look at Mark Perry’s popular Chart of the Century, which compares the increase in prices for selected consumer goods. This makes it easy to see that the only item that has outpaced college tuition over the past 20 years is hospital services.

Simply shifting the source of funding for higher education tuition today merely postpones the inevitable steps we must take in order to make college education truly affordable, valuable, and accessible. Here are a few of those steps.

  • We need to scrutinize the design of college-level courses/programs and align those concretely with the real-world skills and competencies that lead to professional success in the 21st-century. To be clear, more than a redesign of current models we need to begin designing and delivering new ones.
  • We need to analyze our financial models and the costs associated with instructing and delivering our courses. This will necessarily include challenging our existing assumptions about the efficacy and efficiency of current instructional models. The real “gold standard” should be defined by (1) students’ attainment of the skills and competencies they need for personal and professional success, and (2) measured, demonstrable mastery of learning outcomes (approximately 60-65 per course).
  • We need to build course and program product/delivery models that provide equitable access to everyone in the U.S., regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic status, and their access to technology. These models must address, specifically, students in rural areas and the inner-city, as well as incarcerated adults.
  • We must challenge ourselves to redefine affordability. This definition should not be based on our current models but, rather, should begin by asking the people who can’t afford college how much they might be able to pay and then working backward from there.

Real affordability means that we have models for college-level studies that can be paid for by the consumer (parents and students) without the need for student loans. Our work at TEL has led us to define this as approximately $1,300 for a year of college, all-inclusive.

Real affordability also means not sacrificing quality. The goal must be to reduce costs while improving the experience. Specifically, truly affordable courses must deliver learning experiences that result in the demonstrable mastery of measurable outcomes, and that this mastery can be shared in meaningful ways with potential employers.

Our work at TEL, every day, is about proving that true affordability in higher education is achievable and sustainable. It will not happen, however, without challenging some of our current models and our traditional ways of thinking about how to design and deliver a college education.

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