The latest sign that America’s system of higher education needs major change: Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reiff has written a two-page article in the latest TIME magazine titled “Online learning will make college cheaper. It will also make it better.”
Everyone would like a solution to the problem of rising college costs. While students worry that they cannot afford a college education, U.S. colleges and universities know they cannot really afford to educate them either. At a technology-intensive research university like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it now costs three times as much to educate an undergraduate as we receive in net tuition—that is, the tuition MIT receives after providing for financial aid. To push the research frontier and educate innovators in science and engineering demands costly instrumentation and unique facilities. Even for institutions with substantial endowments, subsidizing a deficit driven by these and other costs is, in the long run, unsustainable.
Some wonder whether today’s online technologies—specifically, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which can reach many thousands of students at a comparatively low cost—could be an answer. I am convinced that digital learning is the most important innovation in education since the printing press. Yet if we want to know whether these technologies will make a college degree less expensive, we may be asking the wrong question. I believe they will; we are assessing this possibility at MIT even now. But first we should use these tools to make higher education better—in fact, to reinvent it. When the class of 2025 arrives on campuses, these technologies will have reshaped the entire concept of college in ways we cannot yet predict. Those transformations may change the whole equation, from access to effectiveness to cost.