US President, Barack Obama, recently proposed a plan to offer two years of community college at no charge to the student, in an effort to promote higher education in the United States. The dynamics of the proposal can be read in more detail below in the link to the NPR report on the proposal. Ideologically the concept is sound, earning a college degree in the first part of the 21st century has been become what a high school degree was at the beginning of the 20th century. Affordable, higher education can and should be made available to the masses. Sounds great right? So what’s the rub?

The fundamental flaw in this plan is that “free” isn’t. The proposal passes the cost on to an already heavily burdened US tax payer. A cost, by the way, that has become obscenely expensive just in the time frame since the beginning of the economic crisis, 2009 to present. To illustrate, the average cost of community college in 2009 was approximately $26 per unit. So if you took a single, 5 unit language class, it would cost you $130 for the semester before books, parking and other expenses. In 2014 that same class cost an average of $75 per unit or $375 for the semester. That’s almost triple just in the time period since the beginning of the economic crisis.

Obama In Tennessee To Promote Free Community College : NPR Ed : NPR.

What’s an alternative? One of the best kept secrets in today’s digital age is that truly free higher education already exists. It’s called MOOC or Massive, Open source, Online, Courses and despite heated criticism it’s shifting the paradigm of higher education at an exponential rate.

By Mathieu Plourde {(Mathplourde on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Simply put, colleges and universities all over the world are offering free online courses from an ever-growing number of subjects and disciplines. Most of these are being offered by highly credited academic institutions from MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA, the list goes on. These are quality courses, taught by quality professors all over the world and the cost to the student is typically just for books and incidentals.  There are also organizations that curate these courses into one source to make it as easy as possible to find what you are looking for and get signed up.

MOOC has grown to the point that many students have organized full course curriculums that completely mirror the required course work for a bachelor or even a master’s degree in a growing number of disciplines. In other words, you could, in theory, complete the entire coursework through MOOC required to earn an MBA from an established academic institution. Your cost? Somewhere around $1000 for all the necessary books and incidentals. Sounds great right? So again, what’s the catch to all of this?

Image: Courtesy of Nature magazine

The challenge is that a student could complete an entire coursework set for an MBA through MOOC, they could get straight A’s on the exams, the assigned papers, the research projects, they could participate in every online class conversation, be present in every video conference and even lead the discussions. They could be at the top of their class on every course and the reality at the end of it all would be this

“Currently, there is no academic institution in the world that will recognize a student who has completed the required coursework through MOOC as having earned that associated degree.”

Critics of MOOC from all directions appear to use the same set of basic arguments wrapped in a different packages but they really fall into just a couple of main headings

Substandard Learning Environment

 This argument contends that the student is being denied the element of social integration and people/relationship skills by participating solely in MOOC courses versus the traditional in-person classroom. There are three fundamental flaws with this argument however; First, the traditional in-person model doesn’t necessary assure students learn those skills either. Having gone to college the traditional route, I’ve personally known students who graduated with very few new social skills. Second, the argument presupposes that college is the key, if not only, environment where a young adult could develop social skill sets. Family, sports organizations, religious affiliations, community involvement and even entry-level work place roles can all provide a forum for college students to develop people/relationship skills.

Most significantly, the same logic used by critics could be applied to all online courses, whether paid or free, and therefore in kind be considered substandard. So in other words, the MBA purchased from the Thunderbird School of Global Management online would lack the same quality as any course taken through MOOC.

The reality is that technology allows students in an online course to interact through live chat, video conference and other tools that allow discussion and debate on a global scale that was unheard of a few decades ago. Students that previously would never have had a voice in a lecture hall of 300-500 students, now can.

No Pay, No skin in the game

Another argument promotes the “carrot & stick” theory of human motivation with earning a degree as ‘the carrot’ and extensive cost for said degree as ‘the stick’. So the idea is that the guilt of the financial burden is what keeps the student going to class and disciplined to finish the degree. While there could be some validity to this argument, the flip side is even more significant. True, self-guided learning requires an incredible amount of personal discipline and will, but therein lies its power. Only those with the highest commitment and academic discipline will even finish a program through MOOC, but isn’t that a goal of higher education? Isn’t the point to elevate the students personal and academic discipline? Isn’t developing personal initiative and follow through a key trait that top employers look for in the work place?

Academic Dishonesty

Has been around since the beginning and is unfortunately a part of the human condition. As long as there have been rules and systems, people have found ways to break the rules and game the systems. Governance of the consequences of people’s actions will simply have to be evolved to meet the needs of the digital age.


Affordable higher education is and should be available to everyone, the answer is already out there creating a quantum shift in learning. The status quo will not go quietly however and the systems that risk extinction will fight wholeheartedly for survival.

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