Here’s how to make college ‘free for all’

What if the federal government took all of the money it spends on student aid, and instead just used that money to pay for every students’ college education?

Source: The New American Foundation

According to the New America Foundation, the federal government spent $69 billion on grants, loans, and tax benefits for student aid in 2013.

If the same money was spent on paying tuition at public universities instead, then every student currently enrolled in those colleges could do so for free. The cost of tuition collected by universities last year was just $62.6 billion, according to the Department of Education.

Web-based education would likely play a vital role in such a radical change in higher education.

If this hypothetical future came to pass (and, as the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann notes, the whole scenario is a pretty big “if”), online education would likely be a major factor in the new program. The government would turn to online education to help make such a system viable — though not perhaps for the cost-saving reasons many associate with online learning.

“By giving students a free education, you’d be expanding access and so you’d have to have some way of meeting demands,” said Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst for the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. “One of the good things about online education is that is you can greatly expand capacity. You’re opening up courses students wouldn’t have access to.”

Of course, by making a public college education free, there could be an influx of students signing up for college, rendering current tuition numbers inaccurate.

Keeping costs down would be a key but difficult task, even with the help of online learning, which President Obama pushed as a central cost-saving measure last year during his college campus tour.

Tens of thousands of students may already be enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs) for free, but the courses themselves are not free to produce. Fixing the low retention rates in online courses would have to be a top priority under the new system, adding further costs.

“There isn’t clear evidence that the cost of online education is less than face to face education,” Fishman said. “MOOCs take hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that’s not nothing. There’s a lot of components to online learning, and to do it right would cost a lot of money. Students still need support to succeed and with that support also comes expense.”

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