Could Flat-Fee Regional Colleges Solve Higher Education’s Problems?

It’s easy to argue that public higher education in the United States is in need of reform. Over the years, earning a college degree in America has become increasingly expensive while offering declining value for the dollar. In a recent blog post at National Review, Freddie de Boer offers an interesting prescription for what’s ailing the country’s public colleges: instead of each state maintaining their own system, he suggests there should be five federally funded universities covering separate areas of the country.

Each would offer a degree that would cost no more than $2,500 per student per year for those in the “local” area and $5,000 for those outside of it.

Here’s my dream: a system of five federal universities. Northeastern American University, Southeastern American University, Central American University, Southwestern American University, and Northwestern American University. They would be explicitly oriented towards providing a cheap, quality education in the traditional sense. I’d like to shoot for a tuition of $0, and I think that is a achievable goal with the right governmental funding, charitable support, and ruthlessness about unnecessary amenities. I would settle for $2,500 a year for any student from within each geographical region and $5,000 for any students who want to go to a university from outside of their region.

According to an article written last year by Reihan Salam and Vance Fried for the National Review, similar experiments are already being tried in the higher education sector. Salam and Fried highlighted the growing popularity of schools like the Western Governor’s University which grants college credit based on demonstrated competence rather than course attendance. This approach allows WGU to implement a unique pricing structure; it doesn’t charge students per-credit – since it has limited its per-credit expenses – and instead assesses a flat fee per two semesters allowing students to earn as many credits as they want over that time period, all without paying extra.

MITx – the program sponsored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology – offers a similar approach. Those who enroll in massive online open courses offered on MITx can, for a small fee, take an exam to demonstrate that they have mastered a material and earn an official credential. Those credentials are not official MIT credits, however, but they also don’t cost nearly as much.

It’s not just online programs that show promise. Grace College, a small college in northern Indiana, uses a much more traditional, residential model. But it has recently trimmed some unnecessary spending and moved summer school totally online. As a result, a Grace degree can now be earned in three years for total tuition of $37,000, about the same as an Indiana resident pays over four years to get a degree from Purdue or Indiana University, Bloomington.

06 6, 2013
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