Dan Lips
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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.

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.

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Dan Lips

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