As Professor George Siemens of Athabasca University in Canada put it to the New York Times, “...if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”
While most of us aren’t university presidents, those of us who pay federal and state taxes that support our existing, grossly inefficient university system should be asking this very question. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, state governments spend $62 billion annually to support our nation’s public colleges and universities. And the federal government spends more than $180 billion annually to subsidize higher education.
All this spending is sold as necessary for educating the next generation (always a winning political sound bite), but much of it goes to support the trappings of academia, the Olympic size swimming pools and high-tech lecture halls and dorm rooms, that have little to do with actual learning. Many, perhaps even most, college students know that when they pay tuition they aren’t just paying for an education, but for the experience of college life: dorm rooms, football tailgates, Frisbee on the green, as well as some courses that add up to a major.
That’s fine if that’s what those consumers want. But they shouldn’t be surprised that the student loans they take to finance their four-year trip to college may not turn out to be the best investment, since very little of that is buying skills relevant to the modern economy. Moreover, students really shouldn’t expect taxpayers to pick up the tab for a college lifestyle that has so little to do with education.
Those students who really want to learn—to study under bright professors who will challenge them and help them hone their skills—should have options other than paying the high price of university life. Free online courses give that to them, and challenge all of those calling for greater student subsidies to reconsider what it is that they really are supporting.