Free College in Ten Years?

Last weekend at a the Nantucket Project, a conference “in the spirit of TED,” Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and director of research at Duke University school of engineering, proposed an interesting idea: free college by 2022. According to a piece by Dan Kadlec at Time:

Wadhwa has unwavering faith in the power of technology to fix much of what is wrong with the world, and he believes that online courses will revolutionize higher education and cut the cost to near zero for most students over the next decade.

Online courses will proliferate to such a degree that acquiring knowledge will become totally free. There will still be a cost associated with getting a formal degree. But most universities, he says, “will be in the accreditation business.” They will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

This is an interesting idea, but it seems to ignore what college education is actually all about. The delivery of courses is only one component of what college is. Most of higher education, where most of the learning takes place, is in the interaction that takes places outside of class, between students and between students and professors.

Wadhwa’s logic is sort of along the lines of looking at WebMD and predicting that in a decade no one will pay for health care.

If Wadhwa’s predication were to occur this would also be in dramatic contrast to actual trends in higher education pricing. We’ve seen a vast proliferation of technological innovation in higher education in the last 20 years, and college has only become more expensive. The reasons for this are debatable but it’s hard to understand how online education will suddenly render college free after it’s had no effect on college pricing so far.

Don’t bet on it. It’s true that the proliferation of online courses might deliver course content for free, but someone still needs to teach those courses. And real college costs money, a lot of money, to administer. And that’s still going to be what real college is. And that’s not going to be free.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer