Most Americans are painfully aware of the soaring price of higher education. In 1974, the average annual tuition at a four-year private college stood at a reasonable $2,000. Today, tuition at a private university is roughly $31,000. In 1974, the average cost of a public university was $510. Today, it is $9,000. These increases have far outpaced the rate of inflation.
Cost is the number one reason why people do not go to college, and it's the main reason why they drop out. Many of those who do get a degree are saddled with burdensome debt. Student debt now exceeds consumer debt in the United States. It's not surprising that a 2013 Huffington Post poll showed that a majority of Americans -- 62 percent -- believe they cannot afford a public college education.
We face a paradox in the 21st century: We desperately need an educated workforce to fill jobs that are increasingly skilled and technological; yet we are making earning a college degree less attainable. There are millions of people whose potential will remain unrealized because they are denied access to affordable education. They will never have the chance to be moved by an inspiring teacher, or motivated by curious peers, because the price of admission is too high.
There are lots of valuable proposals for trimming university costs: cutting administrative positions, expanding summer classes, and convincing parsimonious state legislators to spend more money on higher education.
Another idea would be to radically transform the way colleges operate. Most universities exercise near monopoly power over their students. They know that, once admitted, students will take most of their classes at their home institution. The challenge today is to empower students by providing them with a more robust menu of online classes that could lead to an open market in transferable college credit.
Colleges should be required to compete for students every semester, and for every class. Expanding online offerings will generate competition -- competition that could lead to even better technology, a more engaging learning experience for students, and, most importantly, lower costs. Students could, for example, have the flexibility to take American government from Penn State, introduction to psychology from University of Michigan, and introductory anthropology from Berkeley -- and then bundle them together toward a degree at their home institution.
In some ways, the evolution of higher education will follow consumer habits. Two decades ago, if you wanted to buy a new pair of shoes, you were limited to the stores or shopping malls within about a 20-minute drive from home. Today, you can get on Amazon, or other online retailers, and buy your shoes from anywhere in the world. There has emerged a national marketplace that has increased competition, created greater choices, and kept prices low. Why not provide students with a similar menu of choices in education?
Last year I created a class in partnership with The History Channel and the University of Oklahoma (OU) that is designed to push that process along. (The opinions expressed here are my own and have not been approved or endorsed by either OU or The History Channel). The class, which covers the second half of the traditional American history survey, accepts students from around the world. The cost is significantly lower than regular college courses: $449 for three credits. Students can complete the class at OU and then transfer the credit back to their home institution.
Initiatives designed to empower students by creating more online classes face numerous hurdles. The biggest obstacle is the instinctive resistance to change from universities that bristle at the suggestion that are bound by the rules of market competition. To date, Arizona State is the only four-year university in the United States to fully embrace this new market system for college credit.
The fact is that, for better or worse, digital technology has rippled through every major industry in America: music, newspaper, publishing, and television. Education cannot hold off the forces of technological and economic change much longer.
At the depth of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt promised "bold, persistent experimentation" to offer recovery and relief to the American people. Today, universities will need bold, persistent leadership to confront the biggest problems facing higher education: rising costs and limited access. We need to make sure that new technology is used to provide wider access to greater numbers of people; to empower students by providing more choices and greater opportunities; and to guarantee that a college education remains in reach for all Americans regardless of age, race, gender, income or region.