No-Cost College Alternatives?

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Cost of College

Before looking at some of the more radical alternatives to a quarter-million dollar, four-year degree at a fancy college or university, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of post-secondary students have already opted for more affordable options. These include four years at a large (and subsidized) state school, two years at a community college, or some hybrid of the two.

Costs at these types of schools are also rising, due to both the economic factors I’ve been talking about all summer as well as the fact that governments have been cutting subsidies to state schools over the last three decades since (unlike other government funded programs) colleges have a ready alternative for raising cash (by jacking up tuition).

But when people talk about taking a wrecking ball to higher ed or shaking the whole post-secondary system to its foundations, they tend to be getting jazzed up over something far more radical than the government-subsidized school options already being taken by over half of college attendees.

The first “wrecking ball” stories I became aware of had to do with the Thiel Fellowship, a program created by tech entrepreneur/VC/hedge-fund guy Peter Thiel (i.e., a fellow who can afford to do his own big-ticket educational experiments). This program (originally called “20 under 20”) involves giving twenty students a year a $100,000 grant if they don’t go to college (or drop out) to pursue other self-driven avenues of learning and exploration, such as entrepreneurship, research or activism.

A graduate of that program, Dale Stephens, programitized (is that a word?) the Thiel concept further, creating Uncollege, an organization that takes on a dozen or so students per semester to live in a community of independent learners. (Dale describes Uncollege in more detail in an interview you can listen to here.)

While both these options are intriguing and have already turned out interesting alumni, so far Thiel and Uncollege have “graduated” about a hundred people total since 2010. And looking over descriptions of their graduates, it seems clear that these kids would be headed for success no matter how they structured (or paid for) their college (or alternative-to-college) experience. In other words, as notable as experiments like Thiel or Uncollege (or Minerva – a new program I’ll be talking about later this week) might be, they are really serving a small subset of “outliers,” – kids whose independent learning streak and self-motivation may be driving the success of these alternative learning programs, rather than vice versa.

MOOCs were the next “wrecking ball” to make news, but as we saw over the course of last year, the steps needed to turn free versions of existing college courses into an actual higher-ed program are not obvious. A group of educational entrepreneurs are giving it a try at MOOC Campus – a college without a faculty – where students live together and learn through a combination of MOOC content, local mentors and self-study. But as this interview notes, this experiment is also drawing a self-selected group whose success is likely to come from something other than the fact that they’re studying via MOOCs vs. live professors.

I still think that MOOC-Campus-like experiments we’ve seen in developing countries might be in a better position to fill in the holes that keep massive open courses from serving the role traditional courses do within the framework of a formal degree program. But until those mature, the number of people who have put together a full-fledged college program via MOOC is even less than one Uncollege graduating class. And we existing MOOC 1.0 graduates have to live with the fact that we didn’t actually earn any kind of a recognized degree.

A problem with the most radical of radical alternatives is the assumption that the best price for a college education should be nothing (or, at least nothing out of pocket for students or their families).

During an era when state schools were more subsidized than they are today, college did not take such a huge bite out of everyone’s savings, and higher education in Europe (like so much else on that continent) is still subsidized to the point of being nearly free for most. But as we’ve seen over the summer, it costs something (quite a lot, actually) to deliver quality education to students. And if those students aren’t picking up the whole tab for their learning, then someone else is making up the difference.

Now some of the programs I’ve already mentioned (Uncollege, Minerva and MOOC Campus) are not free. But they do cost less than most college or university degree programs, and some come quite close to the $15,000 a year I talked about way back when – which is the most a year of college should cost if inflation for higher education had gone up no faster than has housing during the last four decades.

So if we set our sights not on free college, but reasonably priced college, where might that lead us? Tune in next Monday to find out.

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