The Conversation about Free College Continues

This NPR piece does a pretty good job of getting on the table the tangle of issues that surrounds the cost of education question.

  • If education makes people economically better off, shouldn’t they pay for it? 
  • Does financial aid create an economic bubble? Are college costs un-disciplined by the market? 
  • Is there a public obligation or public interest in paying for higher education? To make a better democracy? To ensure a meritocratic society? 
  • Do elite universities merely reproduce privilege? 
  • If employers provide education benefits, is there a danger that the US makes the same mistake with education that it made with health care? 
  • Or is there a danger that industry will then define what education is? 
  • Does “free college” make sense? If it does, what happens to the private non-profit education sector? If MOOCs were/are not the answer, is there something else in the technology realm that is? 
  • Are answers possible when so many different powerful actors have so many different interests and ideologies? 

Free College For All: Dream, Promise Or Fantasy?

June 19, 2014

“Free” is a word with a powerful appeal. And right now it’s being tossed around a lot, followed by another word: “college.”

A new nonprofit, Redeeming America’s Promise, announced this week that it will seek federal support to make public colleges tuition-free. That effort is inspired by “Hope” and “Promise” programs like the one in Kalamazoo, Mich., which pays up to 100 percent of college tuition at state colleges and universities for graduates of the city’s public high schools.

Starbucks announced a tuition benefit for its employees that will cover classes taken online from Arizona State University.

And we wrote last week about a Tulsa, Okla., program that pays for two years of community college for county residents.

In reality there’s no free college, just as there’s no free lunch. The real policy discussion is about how to best distribute the burden of paying for it — between individual families and the public at large — and, secondly, how to hold down the cost of providing it. All while leveraging the power of “free” responsibly.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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