America’s College Promise and the Tuition-free Degree

By Shai Reshef


In 2013, the outstanding student loan debt in the United States reached over one trillion dollars – an astonishing amount for a population of young adults and one that reflects both the rising cost of college and the rising demand. President Obama’s recent proposal, that community college throughout the US be made free for all students who maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5, recognizes the paramount value of education, both for individuals and for society as a whole.


The plan, however, is unnecessarily limited in scope. With currently available online methods, the proposed plan could be implemented, and even extended, to cover four-year college degrees, at a much lower cost.


Such as it is, the announcement is a very welcome turn; it would create opportunities for millions of Americans who are now struggling to afford college or who are dissuaded from applying by the high costs.  It is no longer practical for people to sidestep a college education because of cost or for students to be burdened with the heavy charges of something that is so essential to the financial health of the country and its individuals.


Besides opening up access to higher education and the ensuing employment opportunities, Obama’s plan can potentially serve as a strong equalizing force in American society. By offering a blanket tuition-free community college plan, students coming from higher socioeconomic backgrounds will also be encouraged to apply for community college – students who directly apply to four year colleges, rather than attending community college for their first two years of study. The plan draws such students towards community college just as it does students who would otherwise be unable to afford college at all. This diverse spectrum of people studying side by side could be the instigator of a more socioeconomically integrated student community.


With these social and individual advantages to tuition-free education, why stop at two years? Why not make four-year bachelor’s degrees tuition-free nationwide?


The obvious answer is cost. The President’s current proposal is expected to cost $60 billion in the next ten years, and it will not be an easy pass through Congress. To expand the plan in its current form to four-year institutions would be near impossible.


In order for the plan to effectively increase the number of community college students and graduates, the existing community college infrastructure must be extensively bolstered. Community colleges are already financially struggling to find seats for all students who matriculate, and a new wave of applicants will certainly overwhelm existing systems. Improvements on the system will be an expensive process: new instructors will need to be hired and new college buildings and campuses constructed, taking up a significant portion of the $60 billion dollar budget.


A much better alternative to this traditional expansion is to take the new community college programs online. Online programs can be run for much lower costs and with easier scalability than traditional brick and mortar programs. Server costs for one thousand or ten thousand students are not significantly different, and the development of new courses – the most demanding aspect of an instructor’s job – can be made significantly cheaper when one course serves a much larger number of students. Online programs have the added benefit of being conveniently accessible to students who are limited by time, such as those who support themselves and their families during their studies, as well as students who are limited physically from attending a bricks and mortar campus. Through correct crafting of the learning environment and study materials, the personal attention, classroom cohesion, and academic quality available at high quality traditional institutions can be maintained in the online model.


While the online model may not be for everyone, its obvious benefits with regard to cost and accessibility cannot be denied. As such, it does not serve to replace physical schools but to supplement them at a much reduced cost to satisfy the need for an increasingly educated society.


President Obama’s proposal is a welcome development in the lives of many Americans. Its reach, however, is unnecessarily limited by the physical nature of current community colleges. If tuition-free education for all is the goal, one would do well to look at online methods. If employed at a national scale, they are the real way to fulfill America’s College Promise.


An education system that enables every qualified high school graduate to access higher education is a more democratic system, one that will benefit not only the people taking part in it, but also their families, communities, society and the entire United States at large.


Shai Reshef,

Founder and President, University of the People

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