Would Making Higher Education Free Avert a Meltdown?

What will it take to fix higher education in the United States? Would making it free do the job? Would that even be possible? According to Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai of the Harvard Business Review, advances in technology are bringing the dream of free higher education ever closer to reality – good news if there ever was some for families and future students facing tuition bills that are 400% higher than they were in 1980.

At the Davos conference earlier this year, MIT President Rafael Reif broke down the costs of attending a top school like his into three parts: cost of instruction, labs and additional educational activities and the campus social life. The price for offering at least two of those could be substantially reduced with digital offerings on the market even now.

According to the American Institute of Physics (PDF), as of 2010, there are about 9,400 physics teachers teaching undergraduates every September in the United States. Are all of these great teachers? No. If we had 10 of the very best teach physics online and employed the other 9,390 as mentors, would most students get a better quality of education?

Wouldn’t that lead to lower per unit cost per class?

Yes, you might argue the lack of “classroom experience” is missing. But when it comes to core classes which don’t require labs or much in-person faculty interaction, does the current model justify the value-price equation?

The real cost of education is not a topic that many inside academia enjoy discussing. However, with college enrollment numbers on the decline in the US for the first time in years, and many families still buffeted by the rough economic climate in place since 2008 and becoming much more price sensitive, it is a topic that can’t be ignored for much longer.

Even if university heads continue to insist that a college degree shouldn’t be treated as some higher form of vocational training but embraced for its own sake, some of the country’s most prestigious companies are now wondering if degree is even necessary to develop a good employee.

In a recent interview, Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google, said, “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — there is no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation.” Even more fascinating is his statement that “the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time,” leading to some teams in which 14% have not gone to college. “After two or three years,” Bock said, “your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different.”

Meanwhile, hiding heads in the sand is not stopping technological progress as more students clamor for a different kind of college experience as evidenced by the increasing enrollment in massive online open courses in the US and elsewhere.