For too long, efforts to solve the college access and affordability problem have focused on increasing subsidies—grants, loans, and scholarships—for students to attend college. Increased student aid subsidies have contributed to today’s high tuition prices. The College Board reports that total federal support for all forms of college student aid programs was $146 billion in 2010—an increase of 136 percent over just a decade ago.
Instead of this continuing this failed approach—an approach we simply can no longer afford—elected officials should focus on dramatically lowering the costs associated with earning a college education. For example, Governor Rick Perry recently called on the Texas higher education system to develop a new program through which students can earn a college degree for only $10,000. Presumably, this initiative will take advantage of the exciting efficiencies that are happening thanks to online learning.
Leaders in Washington and in state capitals around the country should follow Governor Perry’s lead. Governors and state legislatures should require state-funded universities to follow schools like MIT—putting lectures and course content online for free. Like Texas, state higher education systems should create new credentialing systems to allow people who learn online to demonstrate their mastery and work towards a degree.
Congress and the administration have a responsibility to taxpayers to support reforms that will lower the $150 billion annual burden of student aid programs. For example, Congress could require a college that receives a certain level of direct federal subsidies place a percentage of its instructional content online for free. This initiative would follow the tradition of the Library of Congress—creating a national library of college lectures that all citizens can use. President Obama could use his bully pulpit to challenge universities across the country to do their part to solve a critical national problem.
Very few of our country’s many, big problems have simple and inexpensive solutions. We can’t afford to pass this one up.