Why College May Be Totally Free Within 10 Years

Higher education is in transition and with a coming proliferation in online courses could be totally free for many within a decade. The status quo won't yield easily. But this is looking like a real answer to runaway student debt.

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NANTUCKET, Massachusetts — As few as 10 years from now, quality higher education will be largely free—unless, of course, nothing much has changed. It all depends on whom you believe. But one thing is clear: The debate about financing education grows louder by the day.

Experts with a wide range of views on the subject, including the always-interesting Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, weighed in last weekend at the Nantucket Project, a big-think conference in the spirit of TED and Aspen Ideas Festival. The most provocative, though, were hedge fund billionaire Peter Thiel and the author and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa.

Thiel has gotten a lot of attention for his view that higher education is broken, and that many kids would be better off saving their money and going straight from high school into a trade or developing a business. His “20 under 20” fellowship grants high school graduates with a sound business idea $100,000 if they agree to skip college and go right to work on their idea.

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Wadhwa’s views are less well known, even though he served as a counter-point interview last May on a 60 Minutes segment featuring Thiel. 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.

This is a powerful concept. On the same weekend some 1,500 miles away in Kansas City, the Council for Economic Education was hosting its own conference of ideas and started by noting that student debt now tops $1 trillion and that a third of college students drop out–with debt and  without a degree. Nearly a third of the average 18-to-24-year-old’s income goes toward debt repayment, much of it owing to student loans.

The Council, along with other financial literacy advocates, want to attack this scourge by educating students in the classroom about how to manage their money. At the conference, officials unveiled a new set of voluntary national content standards for teaching personal finance in grades K-12.

Yet if Wadhwa is right the student debt problem will take care of itself—at least as it relates to the next generation and those that follow. 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 isn’t an argument that Thiel was ready to entertain. His focus is on skipping college altogether unless you can get into a top-tier school and are certain to enter a highly paid field. He believes we are experiencing a “psycho-social” bubble in higher education. Everyone believes they have to have a college degree and so they will borrow and pay any amount to get one from any school.

Most families view a college degree as insurance; something they can buy to guarantee that they do not fall through society’s cracks, Thiel says. But what they are really buying is “a dunce hat in disguise” because employers have less respect than ever for a degree that comes from a second-tier university. Such a degree, in Thiel’s view, brands a graduate as mediocre.

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Summers, a former president of Harvard, agrees that higher education is in transition. But he thinks Thiel is “badly wrong” about his bubble theory and that Wadhwa is severely underestimating the value of the total university experience. The gap between what college graduates and high school graduates earn is only widening, which speaks to the continuing value of a college degree—no matter what it costs. And, says Summers, “If you think higher education is expensive, try ignorance.”

There is a reason that people pay a lot of money to go to an event like the Super Bowl when it is free on TV, Summers offers. They get more out of it by being present. Something similar is true of an on-campus education, where you may attend extra-curricular events and engage more fully with faculty and other students.

For his part, Wadhwa allows that there will always be students able and willing to pay for a traditional college experience and for them it will be a worthwhile investment. But for the vast majority, from a financial standpoint that kind of education makes no sense and is fast becoming unnecessary. He believes the higher education revolution is coming soon and will happen fast—perhaps fast enough to keep the next generation from finishing school with debts they may never be able to pay.