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Technology For The Masses

When it comes to technology, Universities have always been on the cutting edge. Today, many Universities sport subatomic microscopes, mass spectrometers, and particle separators to name a few. However, with all of this technology universities have failed to use technology to advance access to education. The cost of higher education has started a parabolic upward move in the last two decades (interestingly, for most of this decade the government has measured very low inflation) see chart below.

Given the massive scalability of the internet nearly everyone could attend Harvard for a very low cost. Indeed I quite frequently watch lectures, free online, by professors all over the world including Harvard, Stanford, University of Boulder, Oxford etc. Where online education has been implemented it is ridiculously expensive, usually costing more than a traditional education at the same university. It is almost as if the Universities are charging a premium for affording you the luxury of studying online.

From what I can tell the reason that prices have remained high for online education is simply elitism and defense of the status quo. If everyone can go to Harvard what is the advantage of going to Harvard? And if people can attend a University cheap online what would motivate that individual to enroll in the traditional on-campus experience?

This is a proposal for a different type of elite university. If a University were to open enrollment for the first two years of school online very cheap but only passed a small percent onto the final two years of on-campus education this University would indeed have the graduated the best and brightest, and would most likely have one of the most diverse student bodies in existence. A program of this nature would look a lot like the CFA exam letting anyone compete but only passing the elite. By keeping the cost so low for the first two years students would have very little risk in competing for an education and students that knew they couldn't pass would simply self-select themselves out of the program and for students that made it to the last two years the added cost would be more than worth it and the student loans made to these students would likely be lower risk.

I fully understand that such an idea would be a major threat to school as usual. Perhaps one of your last two presidents wouldn't have had the chops to make it through the program. This system would not cater to those with rich parents, high level connections or even those that suck up to the teacher; it would reward performance.

I fully understand this is a radical idea but such ideas often carry radical benefits. By opening up very affordable education to the masses society will advance because more people would be educated and have access to the best educators. In addition, having a very strict level of competition would make people push their own boundaries. Perhaps this in and of itself should be the goal. I mean is the goal to educate the most people in the best way possible or is the goal to create a class system where some people can say I went to Dartmouth and you went to a State school? Is it possible that a school such as I outlined above that would have "failures" that were more prepared for life than many of today's university graduates?

UPDATE: Our post coincided nicely with NPR's discussion of online classes on All Things Considered.