Education has always been free

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Trinity COllege Library

Trinity College library, Dublin (photo by author)

I was representing my publisher employer at a technology meeting at the dawn of the commercial internet in the mid-1990s when I heard the popular technology guru Esther Dyson presciently say that “the price of information always trends toward zero.” That prediction was not good news for many book publishers like mine, but it has certainly come true in the higher education sphere.

While my personal politics are moderately progressive in current terms, the one strong push of the Democratic left that I cannot buy into without heavy qualification is the idea that “college education should be free.” My first response to that position is that, ever since Benjamin Franklin first established a public library in Philadelphia in 1731, college-level education for Americans has always been free to those that seek it out. So what, then, are we really paying for in our expensive university systems? It seems to me that we need to better understand that cost if we are going to honestly grapple with changing how we deal with it as a collective society.

In this and the next few posts, I will look at what, in my experience, drives the high costs of college and university education in the United States, and how those costs have been, and in the future could, be funded. There are multiple factors, and thus multiple ways to address this issue that go beyond simple slogans. In this post, I want to demonstrate that the core “product” of discussion, university-level education, is indeed nearly free for the taking if one really wants that “product.”

I’ll admit that I am a “book guy.” While I have managed to acquire multiple university degrees, I think I have learned more about the world over the expanse of my life from books. My father always had a book in his hand in his relaxation time, and when I was about eight years old, my parents bought the complete set of the World Book encyclopedia, 1960 edition. Over the next few years, while I did not read every word, I did spend a lot of time just picking up one of the 20-plus volumes and reading about countries and presidents and science and many other topics. And I still have a queue of both unread e-books and traditional print books on the nightstand as well.

For a big chunk of my career I was a managing editor for an educational publisher during the heyday of that business. That industry is now in a death spiral most often attributed to the excessive price increases by publishers, accompanied by the rise of the internet-fueled “used book” business, which have combined to crash the unit sales of new college textbooks.

In the last years of my university teaching career, however, I evolved my own alternative explanation. Very simply, most students had just stopped reading the damned textbooks. Most college professors outside of the literature field itself, I contend, have adapted their teaching and testing methods to de-emphasize knowledge obtained from the textbooks and other print resources in favor of lecture notes and online multimedia resources. I had to do this myself in my last years before retirement in order to get students through my courses, and I don’t think my institution was unique.

Getting a “free” education, if you want it

Without a doubt, new editions of textbooks have become outrageously expensive, but used ones and past editions can be dirt cheap, or even found free, whether you are enrolled in a university course of study or not. The best-selling textbooks in each academic discipline these days are marvelous, and usually very readable, summaries of almost all of the critical information that the university accrediting bodies have deemed essential to receive a passing grade in any standard course. In truth, for many academic disciplines outside of the lab sciences, you don’t really need the college or university at all to master a subject if you just know how to read with comprehension. Find the best-selling textbook assigned for each course in an academic field of study and read a used, recent past edition, and you will probably know as much or more at the end than most students who took that course. That part of “college education” itself is nearly free for the taking.

Even if you won’t, or can’t read with good comprehension, you can still get pretty close to a nearly-free college education. A monthly subscription to the e-book service Audible gets you access to dozens of complete college course lectures by some of the top educators in the world through the Great Courses series, and even more are available at the Great Courses site itself. The free site Kahn Academy has dozens of well-done multimedia mini-courses in mathematics, science, and the arts. Almost every college and university has online sample curricula for most disciplines that will help you select the general education and academic major required courses, and many even have detailed course syllabi online. A simple Google search will also suffice to find a instructor sites containing syllabi, complete with recommended textbook information.

So, why don’t we avail ourselves of this “free college education”? There are several answers to that question that I will explore in upcoming posts. What value does the course instructor add, for instance? Does that value explain the crazy-high cost of university tuition? (spoiler: far from it). What about acquired skills like professional communication, written and verbal?

Let me suggest that one reason the student failure rates are so high for “online learning” programs is the same as the one described above. If you already have the motivation to learn “on your own” without the discipline of a formal classroom, you could already get much of this knowledge for free. Statistics suggest that most people do not have that inclination to “self-learn” or even to “distance-learn.” Maybe this is why we call the various formal fields of study academic disciplines.

I would hope that my years as a university professor had some positive impact on students who could not, or would not, dive deep enough into the subject matter to learn on their own, and certainly universities provide laboratories and other technologies to aid in student learning. There is substantial cost required to deliver that, although the summation of my salary and those of my teaching colleagues would likely explain less than half of the typical university’s top-line revenues.

There are also various types of “student services” required to matriculate students, as well as a large “social experience cost,” and I will be exploring these in later posts. And then there is what I call the “third rail” of intercollegiate athletics, an expensive and dangerous topic that needs to be addressed. Expensive research-oriented (or not) graduate schools are also often attached to undergraduate institutions and require substantial financial support.

Education is not the “product” of the university

A mentor of mine, a now-departed professor of marketing, liked to point out that, if “education” is indeed the primary product of the university, then that product has over time violated all of the theoretical foundations of economic decision-making. Most students, he cynically observed, often seem to want as little of “the product” as possible for their money, instead putting in just enough effort to receive their desired grade. He claimed that the “product” of the university that instead best correlates the price paid to the value conveyed is the same as the prize given to the Scarecrow by L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was a diploma, or in other words, a university credential.

Let me suggest that a college or university credential acts as a kind of proxy for a wide range of “social shorthand” qualities that the bearer may or may not hold. It intends to imply some level of academic achievement that correlates with the reputation of degree-granting institution, but I would also argue that the prospective employer or social contact instantly reads into that credential a lot more qualities than just “book learning.” And since the “information” part could have been “nearly free,” those other qualities really come into play when we talk about both the value and the price of higher education credentials.

More about the very expensive “price of the credential” in an upcoming post. You can subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the box on the left of your screen,or click on the Facebook or Twitter icons to subscribe to upcoming posts there. In the meantime, read a book.

Note that Part Two of this series on education and money is now online.

5 thoughts on “Education has always been free

  1. Bruce Lindgren

    A few musings: Could it be that the high price of a university education, along with well-documented “grade inflation” have altered the perceived incentives of university students? If a student is paying, say, $20,000 per year in tuition and various fees, and if the odds of failing grades decline, then paying the high cost and receiving a passing grade may be seen by students as the real “inputs.” In my day, the monetary cost was much more nominal (tuition was basically free) and the possibility of failure was statistically more likely. Also, the consequences of failure for the guys was a free trip to Vietnam and a front seat to the war there. So, the incentive was to do well in class to maintain the scholarship and avoid the very real possibility of death. I would’t want reinstate all of these particular incentives in the present circumstance, but I would suggest that paying a high price (to the student) for a university education may not necessarily be an incentive for good academic performance. It may infer that the “education” is simply a benefit of paying the monetary cost (i.e., it’s a purchase). I would not claim that this characterizes all present-day students, but it does make me think twice about the incentives we are currently offering to them.

    Reply
  2. RKL Post author

    Oddly, despite widespread “grade inflation” on the passing side, I don’t know that college failure rates have concomitantly declined. It would be interesting to see some of this data, but anecdotally I think the rate of “dropouts before credential” is still very high. The change is that students are leaving school with no credential but WITH a lot of debt.

    In later posts I will try to pull out some of the costs of higher education that we know have changed. The question to me is whether the system is better off because of these changes, or whether we are now paying “more for less.”

    Reply
    1. Bruce Lindgren

      A good and valid point and one worth pursuing. But I think my musing (more of a question really, since I’m not sure how one would measure it) is: Does the high cost of a university education transform the credential into something more of a purchase? That is, do the incentives and the larger environment encourage students to focus more on obtaining a credential and to focus less on pursuing one’s curiosity? At the age of 20, I discovered that I was not curious at all about the questions people in my field were pursuing. So, I changed my major to a field with far less lucrative career prospects, but one that sparked my curiosity. If I knew that I would be leaving school with an enormous debt load, would I have made that change; or would I have slogged it out in a field that paid better?

      There are all sorts of ways that we incentivize students, and we quite often don’t even realize that we’re doing it and what the results might be. Looking forward to your future posts on higher education.

      Reply
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