Dan Lips

How much should a college education cost?  According to the College Board, the average cost of earning a degree at a private, 4-year university is now more than $100,000.  If tuition prices continue to rise as quickly as they did during the past decade, a college degree will cost more than $200,000 by the time today’s third-graders are applying.  That price tag is enough to cause most parents to break into a sweat.

Is a college degree really worth this cost?  Some bright minds think Americans are paying way too much.  In fact, Bill Gates--one of the country's most famous college dropouts--thinks it should be closer to zero.  He told an audience last summer:  “Five years from now, on the web, for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world.  It will be better than any single university.” 

One could argue that the bright future Gates described is already here.  The Massachusetts Institute for Technology has already put all of its instructional materials, including lectures, online and made it available for free.  Other schools, including many elite universities, are following suit.  For example, using iTunes University, you can already download free lectures from Stanford, Yale, and dozens of other colleges.

The trend of a free and open higher education system will revolutionize higher education, and fundamentally change the way that the world learns.  As Gates argues, someday soon, anyone—anywhere in the world—with internet access will be able to learn from the best professors and teachers.

Of course, access to instruction isn't the only, or even primary, reason why most American students go to college.  A big part of what today’s students are purchasing for that $100,000 is the degree itself—the credential that signals to employers and society in general that one is able to learn and can survive four years of classes and exams. 

But alternative credentialing systems, like AP tests and CLEP exams, are already in place.  And the realization of Bill Gates's vision of free online higher education will surely be followed by new credentialing systems that allow people who learn online to prove their accomplishments and signal their value to employers.

Forward thinking elected officials now have the opportunity to expedite the arrival of the free college era, and—in the process—solve a major problem for American families while providing big relief for taxpayers and federal and state budgets.

Dan Lips

Dan Lips is a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute and the Maryland Public Policy Institute.