Free knowledge: Online classes and the future of higher education

Education is a wonderful thing, the more you know the more you are capable of doing. But can the value of an education be measured in dollars? Universities promise to give their students the skills they will need to be successful later in life, but the fruits of the student’s labor become a diploma, a piece of paper as the evidence of higher education. The closely guarded power to issue this piece of paper has given universities and community colleges the ability to charge whatever they wish for it, limited only by the number of students they can attract.
Colorado State University charges more than $4,000 per semester for tuition to Colorado residents and more than $12,000 per semester to students from out of state. The actual cost of attendance is much higher. The cost of CSU after room and board, as estimated on their website is about $20,000 a year for in state students and $40,000 for out of state students.
There are lower cost options, such as correspondence classes at an open university, but these can still cost in excess of $3,000 a semester and do not provide the amenities of a traditional university. Community colleges are cheaper yet, costing only about $2,000 per semester.
These numbers all seem very high, but students are enticed by the idea of paying $80,000 now (CSU’s $20,000 in state cost of attendance for four years) in order to get a much better job later. The value of a bachelor’s degree, calculated by increased lifetime earnings, is usually considered to be somewhere in the millions.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the actual numbers are far lower. A student with a college education will, on average, make only about $300,000 more over the 30 years after they graduate than a student who did not seek higher education. This number is adjusted for the costs of attendance and dropout rate.
But perhaps the real value in higher education cannot be measured with a dollar sign or a value. The greatest thing the university teaches may not be math or arts or literature, but be a voracious appetite for knowledge, a consuming desire to learn.
Out of this desire for knowledge have come some extraordinary programs. TED, a non-profit organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” has become a place to share ideas in 18 minutes, the time limitation of a TED Talk. iTunes U contains a wealth of information contributed by universities for distribution to anyone with an iTunes account. The Khan Academy provides education on everything from math to art history via videos on its webpage. Harvard University, and many other universities, including CSU, offer extensive online extension services and video lectures.
These programs all have two things in common; they are all in the pursuit of increasing knowledge, and they are all free. Universities are offering free programs and information online in larger amounts than ever before.
The Khan Academy offers an extensive video library, a large collection of interactive challenges and assessments on a multitude of topics. Every math problem on the site can be broken down, step-by-step and explained. Statistics about information covered and student achievements are all available. The Khan Academy is one of a growing number of online learning resources and the only thing that such courses do not offer their students is credit.
But it is only a matter of time. There are hundreds of TED talks, thousands of lectures available on iTunes U and, all available to anyone for free. Will universities continue to hold the sacred power of accreditation, or will free, community run online universities one day be able to offer an equal education and valid diplomas?