College Guide


October 16, 2012 10:00 AM Free College in Ten Years?

By Daniel Luzer

Last weekend at a the Nantucket Project, a conference “in the spirit of TED,” Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and director of research at Duke University school of engineering, proposed an interesting idea: free college by 2022. According to a piece by Dan Kadlec at Time:

Wadhwa has unwavering faith in the power of technology to fix much of what is wrong with the world, and he believes that online courses will revolutionize higher education and cut the cost to near zero for most students over the next decade.
Online courses will proliferate to such a degree that acquiring knowledge will become totally free. There will still be a cost associated with getting a formal degree. But most universities, he says, “will be in the accreditation business.” They will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

This is an interesting idea, but it seems to ignore what college education is actually all about. The delivery of courses is only one component of what college is. Most of higher education, where most of the learning takes place, is in the interaction that takes places outside of class, between students and between students and professors.

Wadhwa’s logic is sort of along the lines of looking at WebMD and predicting that in a decade no one will pay for health care.

If Wadhwa’s predication were to occur this would also be in dramatic contrast to actual trends in higher education pricing. We’ve seen a vast proliferation of technological innovation in higher education in the last 20 years, and college has only become more expensive. The reasons for this are debatable but it’s hard to understand how online education will suddenly render college free after it’s had no effect on college pricing so far.

Don’t bet on it. It’s true that the proliferation of online courses might deliver course content for free, but someone still needs to teach those courses. And real college costs money, a lot of money, to administer. And that’s still going to be what real college is. And that’s not going to be free.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Vivek Wadhwa on October 16, 2012 12:56 PM:

    Daniel, there are two components to education: the transfer of knowledge and development of social skills. You are right that the student-professor interaction leads to a lot of learning--but this is the social skills part.

    The transfer of knowledge--what we get from lectures and books can better be done by artificial intelligence assisted learning systems. These can adapt the lessons to the level of interest and needs of the student. If a child doesn't learn algebra the traditional way, for example, the system can switch to game playing, puzzle solving, videos, or virtual worlds. Today's teaching is "one size fits all"--with one teacher and dozens of students.

    I know that what I am saying sounds like science fiction, but it is all possible today--using today's technologies.

    I explained the broader innovations that are happening in this piece:

    Yes, these amazing advances are happening now. We will plant the seeds for solving many of humanity's grand challenges--including education--in this decade.

    Vivek Wadhwa

  • $college on October 16, 2012 2:17 PM:

    That link doesn't have anything to do with the price of college. That's all just praise for glorious technology. Sure, great. But how is this making college cheaper?

  • John Moravec on October 16, 2012 3:19 PM:

    Vivek, I'm afraid you're confusing information with knowledge. Books and lectures transfer information, not knowledge. Knowledge is about creating personal meaning from bits and pieces of information. That's why both of us can sit through the same lecture but come away with two completely different understandings and bodies of knowledge.

    I've been disappointed that Singularity University, Khan Academy, and others, seem to confuse these, also. Stanford, Harvard, and MIT get it, tho. With initiatives such as MITx, they've realized that they can build their brand by dishing out the same information that you could get in a course (or just about anywhere); and you can study it all you want, but it still will not come near to equaling the knowledge you get from a MIT education.

    Keep commingling information and knowledge together, and you will fail to solve the basic challenges facing education.

  • SR_EducationGroup on October 16, 2012 5:30 PM:

    Higher education will never be free. It would be wonderful if it could but even the "teachers will become mentors and guides" statement shows what colleges will always make you pay for. It's that guidance and mentoring that will always sustain colleges.

    But think of how great it would be to film an amazing professor give the same lecture over several years and cut together all the best parts of it? Then you take that and make it into an online course offered at cheaper prices than the in-person course and you can already cut the cost of education for those in need.

    College won't ever be free but technology can do a lot to help make it cheaper. And with student loan debt at an all time high, higher education hopefuls need all the monetary help they can get.