Why Does College Cost So Freaking Much?

By the time I finished my Degree of Freedom One Year MOOC BA project, an educational experiment designed to see if it was possible to learn the equivalent of what someone would get from being enrolled in a traditional liberal arts BA program in twelve months at no cost, the bloom had been off the Massive Open Online Course rose for quite some time.

Actually, that's not quite right. For what had changed was an assumption that MOOCs would immediately and irrevocably transform the face of higher education, especially with regard to solving the skyrocketing cost of college -- a problem described with terms such as "time-bomb" and "crisis" in books, magazines and movies like Ivory Tower.

For students taking them, MOOCs continue to be extremely popular. And while the increase in new courses has not been exponential as once hoped (or feared), there are now more than twice as many free online courses to choose from than there were when I started taking them two years ago.

I suspect that the reason why MOOCs were initially embraced by the educational press and policymakers eager to find some alternative to traditional (and increasingly expensive) higher education options was that the price for those options was skyrocketing beyond the reach of even reasonably well-off families. In fact, the stories accompanying another new new thing in higher ed - The Minerva Project -- seem to recycle the same wrecking-ball imagery used in MOOC stories a year earlier, giving the impression that there is still an appetite for reducing the traditional academy to rubble.

This desire to tear down the very institutions that were (and still are) making the most investment in things like massive online learning got me thinking about that cost curve that seems to be riling up so many critics of the academy.

As a father of two, I share the terror of fellow parents staring down quarter-million dollar tuition bills in the not-too-distant future. But as someone who both earned a degree at a traditional institution and "learned" a non-degree using only free learning resources, I can attest that the virtues of the traditional higher education experience go well beyond the classes one takes.

In fact, if colleges weren't jacking up prices at two- or three-times the rate of inflation, a conversation about reducing higher ed to ash would seem preposterous. For who wouldn't want to share a life-transforming experience with people your own age at a place where intellectual interests can be indulged and lifestyle choices experimented with in relative safety?

But this just brings up another, more foundational question, namely: why does college cost what it does? As I began to look into this question a bit more deeply, the answers and arguments I discovered seemed as uninformed or contradictory as those surrounding massive open learning.

This led to a months-long exploration of the economics of higher education, the results of which I'm planning to share with Huffington Post readers over the coming weeks. And that conversation will kick off with a look at what has become conventional wisdom in the cost-of-college debate -- one which spans Left and Right (despite its origins) -- the so-called "Bennett Hypothesis."

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