Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

The College Tuition Crisis

New ideas about how to make higher education affordable for all

Kevin Karner, a student intern at On The Commons, takes an in-depth look around the country and the world for alternatives to the high tuition costs that keep college out of reach for many young Americans.

Last week’s violent riots opposing tuition hikes in the UK are a stark reminder of the important role free public education plays in a commons-based society. In the United States, education has long been one of the most widely supported sectors of the commons. By the end of the 19th century, free public education through at least the elementary level was available for nearly all white American children because an educated population was considered essential to maintaining an industrialized nation. Then, thanks to the post World War II GI Bill, millions of Americans were also able to gain a college education at little cost, thanks to the largesse of American taxpayers. Likewise, access to higher education in Europe became a right for qualified students in 1953 with the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But since then Europe and the United States have approached the economics of higher education in starkly different ways. Throughout Europe the modern university education is considered a cultural common accessible to all who meet the entrance requirements. In the U.S., high tuition coupled with a decline in GI benefits and a shift from student grants to loans mean universities are an increasingly enclosed commons, since many students simply cannot afford the financial demands needed to attend college.

In all of Scandinavia, tuition, room and board at all universities are completely covered by the state. In France, all students at all 82 universities pay only an annual €165 (about $225 U.S.) registration fee, on top of their books; Belgium, €500; Ireland, €900; Germany, €1,000; Holland and Italy, €1,000-1,500. In UK, the maximum tuition fee amount that could be charged was £3,145 (about $5000 U.S.) a year—including Oxford or Cambridge) until the new Conservative Party government proposed to triple that figure. Even in Canada, undergraduate students pay under $5,000 U.S. for yearly tuition, while an American student can pay anywhere between $9,000 at the least expensive public universities to $40,000 at an Ivy League school like Brown University .

The costs of receiving a college education in the United States have increased faster than inflation for the past forty years, with the most drastic increases coming in the last decade. At the University of Minnesota, where I am a student, tuition has increased 102% since 2000. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that over the last 20 years the United States has fallen to 12th among 336 developed nations in terms of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees. To put it in cold war terms, the Russian Federation has us beat for college grads at 55.5% compared to our 41.1%.

A recent report, “Measuring Up 2008,” conducted by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education compared one year’s tuition, fees, room and board to the median income of a given student’s family. The results found that a four-year public university amounted to 28% of that income, while a four-year private university cost nearly 76%.

This has all happened at a time when a high school diploma is no longer enough for entry into the middle class. The U.S. has become a service economy, with few well-paying manufacturing jobs for non-college grads to fall back on. The process of globalization means that companies can outsource any service that can be broken down to key components and performed by computerized operations or for cheaper labor, like in India, where the minimum wage is $2.15. The spiral of competition for education and inflated credential requirements are now irreversible in industrialized countries.

Tuition aside, textbooks are another agent of enclosure which pose a potentially crippling expense for students. American textbook prices have increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1994.

So what’s a poor American student to do when academic credentials are rising out of reach?

Beyond the typical search for scholarships and loans, there have been several recent initiatives on the federal level to mitigate the exorbitant expense of higher education. President Obama reduced the role of profit-seeking banks in the student loan business and initiated a $2 billion expansion of the country’s network of community colleges.

There are, however, other options. At military academies, tuition is replaced by a requirement to serve in the armed forces. Another alternative, while little known, is one of several work exchange colleges in which for dramatically subsidized—in some cases free—tuition, students are required to work a set number of hours in positions that would normally be held by an administrative or custodial staff. While neither model is self sufficient (military academies are supported by the Department of Defense and work exchange colleges are typically reliant on substantial contributions from foundations or corporations) both are functioning institutions which have provided to their students guided access to collegiate level curriculum while avoiding an inhibitive price tag.

Another commons-based approach makes wider use of the internet. In 2002 MIT published the reading lists, syllabi, class notes, video lectures, exams and problem sets for 50 actively taught MIT courses, some of which included complete textbooks written by MIT professors. As of June 2010, there are nearly 2,000 courses available through MIT under the Creative Commons license. In the wake of the public appraisal MIT received, a range of schools including the University of Michigan and UC-Berkeley have since offered portions of their curriculum via OpenCourseWare. In 2007 the OpenCourseWare Consortium was founded, creating an online hub for similar initiatives at universities all around the world.

Recognizing the increased popularity in educational lectures featured on the likes of iTunes and YouTube, Richard Ludlow, a student of economics at Yale who had once used OCW himself, launched Academic Earth in 2009 to unify existing online lecture materials. The site aims for a user friendly format, going so far as creating “playlists” of lectures organized by theme or in ascending complexity.

For all its popularity, the value of OCW is only half that of a real course—students do not have access to professors or class discussions, nor will any credit be rewarded whatsoever. So it would be easy to write OCW off as a fine gesture that amounts to independent study for motivated individuals—that is if it weren’t for an important development in 2007.

Funded with a $60,000 grant, several public high schools in the Boston metro partnered with the University of Massachusetts to train their teachers how to incorporate OCW into their class curriculum. The idea came from MIT’s Highlights for High School initiative which promotes OCW material geared towards entering freshmen or advanced high school students. Today, some of these high school teachers opt to substitute some of their own lessons with lectures from faculty at the likes of Yale University.

One remedy to the reality of rocketing textbook prices can be found at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District where educators are attempting to create a closed system that would encompass the creation, maintenance and dissemination of class texts with “open textbooks.” The Rice University based website Connexions provides an online curriculum repository from which Foothill’s faculty can access and tailor content into their own open textbooks designed for their own particular class. Next, the publisher Flat World Knowledge makes that open textbook available in a variety of formats online, accessible for a nominal cost under the Creative Commons license. The convenience and liberty inherent in such a system could serve as a counter balance to the publishing industry’s aggressive lobbying for new, often unnecessary, editions of introductory textbooks. The consortium is currently in the process of adapting out-of-print textbooks with the same process.

The movement for affordable classes and course materials represents more than just reduced tuition for cash strapped college students. While inventions like the printing press and the internet may have opened the floodgate for the types of information humans could reach, educational institutions have remained the authority on knowledge—trusted information vetted by specialists in the field—and it is this distinction in quality assurance that has justified the exclusive nature of the organized and certified information offered with institutional instruction.

While many undeveloped countries do not have the infrastructure to provide proper education to their citizens, internet technology is growing increasingly accessible from all over the globe. OCW based online schools like the University of the People have already begun to offer access to bachelors degrees free of charge to students ranging from the Sudan to Indonesia, bridging what is for many the largest hurdle in acquiring the resources necessary to survive in an industrialized market.

While certified higher education may be increasingly prerequisite for a life in the U.S. or Europe, it’s the intrinsic value of this access to guided higher education that is the real advancement of the intellectual commons. The digitalization and equitable dissemination of knowledge through initiatives like the Khan Academy, Curikki, the Global Text Project and OCW have placed humanity at the dawn of the final chapter in the democratization of knowledge—proving that a common resource as grand as humanity’s intellectual wealth can never truly be commodified and denied from those who seek it.