Why College Costs Will Soon Plunge
The higher education bubble prepares to pop.
"My goal," says the candidate, "is a healthier America. That is why I am setting an ambitious target of sending 1 million more Americans to the hospital in the next five years. To make sure they get there, I am announcing a new, low-interest loan program to help them pay for their treatment. This will ensure that hospital costs stay within reach of the typical American family."
If you heard a speech like that, you probably would start scratching your head. Sure, people with acute medical conditions need hospital care. But most people don't have to lie for weeks in a hospital bed to get healthy. And lavishing more money on hospital care will simply drive the price up '" just as giving everyone a $2,000 vehicle subsidy would jack up prices for cars and trucks.
Yet this is what politicians routinely propose for higher education: Send more people to college, and give them more money to help them get there. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed cranking out 100,000 more college degrees in 15 years. Around the same time, President Barack Obama said he wanted the U.S. to have "the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" '" which would more than double enrollment. His new higher-ed plan calls for yet more financial aid.
Aid to higher ed already has exploded: In 1964, federal student aid was only $264 million, or $1.7 billion in current dollars. Today, the feds shell out $105 billion a year just in student loans. Total federal aid has soared from $64 billion (in 2000) to $169 billion (in 2010).
Flooded with such largess, colleges have sent prices skyward (tuition is up more than 500 percent over the past three decades) and indulged in luxuries that would have made Marie Antoinette blush, from gourmet dining halls (sushi at Bowdoin, vegan at JMU) to rock-climbing walls. Last month, Virginia Commonwealth University announced the construction of two new dorms that will add 426 beds. Their $41 million cost comes to more than $96,000 per bed. Thank goodness Virginia is, comparatively, fiscally conservative: Princeton recently built a dormitory at a jaw-dropping cost of almost $300,000 per bed.
Trend lines like these cannot go on '" and they won't. But not because of politicians' efforts to rein in college costs. College costs will drop because of market forces politicians will be powerless to stop.
In his new book Average Is Over, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen explains why: Thanks to the Internet, you no longer have to sit in a lecture hall to get a superb education. And you certainly don't have to shell out ungodly sums for five-star dormitories, Olympic-level gymnasiums and sushi bars.
You already can learn a great deal online for free from Wikipedia, TED lectures and so on. That information is unorganized, but many universities have begun offering organized instruction online through MOOCs '" massive, open online courses. (Want to take one? Go to Coursera.org.) And "once an online course is created," Cowen writes, "additional students can be handled at . . . close to zero cost."
This is tremendously democratizing. To take a financial-markets course from Sterling Professor of Economics Bob Shiller, a poor kid in South Central Los Angeles or Bee Branch, Ark., no longer has to apply to Yale '" hoping against hope to get in '" and then beg or borrow tens of thousands of dollars a year to pay the freight. He can take the class online. Just as deregulation made air travel available to (nearly) all, online education will make college available to nearly all as well.
Granted, air travel today is much less luxurious than it once was. Won't technology-facilitated education be equally plebian? The question falsely assumes a student at Big State U. is getting a top-notch education now. And it ignores the ways technology could improve higher ed.
For instance, Cowen writes, "when the best courses serve … hundreds of thousands of students, or maybe even millions, the financial returns to pedagogical innovation will be looked at in a new light." Imagine writing a killer app that explains the concept of opportunity cost in a clear and entertaining manner: "As a society, we'll put a lot more effort into teaching things better."
Changes like this could benefit star professors tremendously, but they might not be such good news for the average instructor, whose role could shift dramatically. At Virginia Tech, 8,000 students a year take introductory math from hundreds of computers set up in a renovated big-box store '" with non-tenured assistants on hand to answer the occasional question from the perplexed.
Yet Cowen argues there will always be a place for professors. Some institutions, such as certain Ivies, trade on their exclusivity and might not wish to give credit for courses taken online. Some students lack the self-motivation to learn on their own, and for them the professor will serve as "role model . . . motivator [and] exemplar." Those teachers could "consult the machines to better understand the mistakes their students are making" and "outline a course for improvement."
Finally, the revolution in higher ed could hasten the end of the sheepskin as a signifier of intellectual horsepower.
Just look at how technology has revolutionized chess instruction, Cowen says: No longer do you need to study for years with a chess coach to reach the zenith of the game. Aspiring grandmasters now learn from computers and online game play, and merit is all.
"If you're not a good player," Cowen writes, "the fact that you studied with a top teacher doesn't mean a thing. … There is nothing [in chess] comparable to the glow resulting from a Harvard degree: Announcing 'I studied with Rybka' [a powerful chess engine] would bring gales of laughter, since anyone can do that. … The company selling Rybka tries to make its product replicable and universal, whereas Harvard tries to make its product as exclusive as possible. Now, which model do you think will spread and gain influence in the long run?"
Before you answer that, consider this: A year of tuition, room and board at Harvard will set you back more than $50,000. You can get a copy of Rybka for about $50.
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.