College Education for Free? Eat Your Heart Out, Bernie Sanders

Illustration credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Progressive icon Bernie Sanders famously called for “free” higher education. Not free for taxpayers, of course, but free for students. Daniel Pianko, co-founder of the University Ventures fund, thinks that nearly free tuition may be coming — thanks to market-driven innovation.

COVID-19 is accelerating trends that were underway before the epidemic saddled traditional higher-ed institutions with the task of reopening campuses and keeping students, faculty and staff safe. Many classes are being taught online, and many colleges and universities are offering a 10% tuition discount as compensation.

“Such discounts imply that students are still getting 90% of the value of higher education (about $45,000 worth, on average) from their Zoom lectures, but much of the educational content has become widely available for free. Students and parents can’t be faulted for suspecting that an online education should cost next to nothing,” writes Pianko in the Wall Street Journal.

Pianko expects that one day online educational institutions will be able to provide college degrees almost for free.

While Virginia institutions try to make college “affordable” by raising tuition for the wealthy and subsidizing the poor — leaving their bloated cost structures intact — companies in the University Ventures portfolio are devising radical new business models with the goals of “making higher education more affordable, pioneering entirely new approaches to learning, and helping employers think differently about how and where they discover talent.”

Writes Pianko:

Higher ed is … poised for transformation. Even before the pandemic, momentum was building in the education market away from high-cost operators and toward low-cost ones. Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University, nonprofits that charge less than $10,000 a year in tuition, have already become some of the largest and fastest-grown institutions in the country. They each serve more than 100,000 students by using online delivery and competency-based instruction to drive down costs dramatically without sacrificing quality.

These mega-universities will leverage technology to drive tuition revenue to zero over time. Some are already on the way, and the pandemic may accelerate the shift for many others. Rather than collecting tens of thousands of dollars from students up front, colleges might make money by forming partnership with employers, by charging students a percentage of their post-graduate income, or via government-issued social-impact bonds tied to successful outcomes like graduation rates. …

Technological change affects industries in deep, novel ways that established players ignore at their own peril. New education models are already driving tuition down, but there’s still room for more massive, structural price-driven disruption in this industry. In the wake of the pandemic, the winner will be the institution that takes the cost of online learning down to free. …

Few can imagine what will befall colleges in a world without tuition revenue. But that world may be coming.

Helen Dragas, former rector of the University of Virginia, famously fought the battle of online education a decade ago during the controversy over the firing and rehiring of President Teresa Sullivan. Dragas lost that fight, but the underlying issues haven’t gone away. The University of Virginia has doubled down on its high-touch, high-cost business model with a social-justice overlay. If Pianko is right, UVa and the rest of Virginia’s higher-ed system is cruising for a major bruising.

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12 responses to “College Education for Free? Eat Your Heart Out, Bernie Sanders

  1. America’s military has figured out that it’s worth offering a free education in return for a pretty iron-clad commitment to serve in the military. I’ve often wondered why America’s biggest corporations, especially in technology, haven’t come to the same conclusion. If the cost of getting an education can be brought down maybe the corporate types will see the wisdom of such an arrangement. Six month of study, six months of work. At 26 you have a degree and 4 years of germane work experience with no debt. But … gotta end the addiction companies like Microsoft have to H1B and other types of visas.

    • Why would the corporations pay for a person’s higher education when that person and the state are now paying for it? In fact, the private sector has shifted much of their training/education costs onto the public education sector. For example, look at the curricula of most community colleges.

  2. As for the other alternatives suggested: paying a percentage of one’s post-graduate income is a lot like paying back a loan, only the higher earners may end up paying more than those that take lower paying jobs, for example with government. Sounds good to me. Government-issued social impact bonds sounds like the government will be paying for the education.

  3. I suspect higher ed can cut costs by recycling select asynchronous online modules. There are some EdX analytics courses in this category.
    That said, my best online college classes- the ones promoting critical thinking and research skills- have involved extensive faculty interaction. They include synchronous guided discussions, faculty feedback, and professional guests who field student questions. There is limited labor savings potential in these types of courses.

  4. In terms of “product” – pandemic or not, there is a distinct difference between 4-years on campus versus 4 year on your laptop in your basement or wherever.

    If all you want is an “education” you don’t want nor need the “college life” premium brand.

    The real question is, how is the “College Life” brand holding it’s value?

    This is, by the way, apparently a unique America thing… most other countries – higher ed is downright boring compared to American Higher Ed.

  5. Higher education is destroying America’s culture, and its democratic institutions, along with the confidence, competence, common sense, emotional balance, independence and maturity of its students, along with the skill sets its students need to survive and thrive in the real world. Why in the world should parents pay to have their children’s future bankrupted by American higher education, whether by self proclaimed elite or selective universities down through many of the rest.

    If you doubt this consider the following sample of courses offered by the English Department at the University of Virginia that claims to be ranked number 6th in the nation.

    “The rot in K-12 starts in our Universities like UVA. For example:

    “Reed Fawell 3rd | December 11, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Reply

    Hold on here, Jim. You are way out of line. These kids are all victims of America’s white patriarchy – the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, white male supremacists, you name it, among us.” How can victims of all this abuse by all these other people get jobs when they “can’t shake your hand, and look you in the eye,” says the Wall Street Journal.

    No, these are the kinds of traumatized kids who require great care, nurturing, safe spaces, and elaborate protections, by our K-12 schools, and our top our colleges and universities in America, too.

    These kids need places like UVA’s Department of English who will baby sit them, refine and deepen their insecurities and fears, heighten their sense of entitlement and victimization by other people unlike them, particularly white people, or if they be white kids and seek education at UVA they alternatively must own up to and repent for their privileges, accomplishments, and strengths that they’ve acquired by systemically abusing and discriminating against other classmates, and must do in public, in front of their other classmates.

    Hence, UVA’s Department of English defines its mission to lure in and seduce these needy kids, and/or any few strong ones still left over, who come to their door and pay through the nose seeking a good education, but who instead are told false stories, fed bogus courses, and indoctrinated with ideologies founded on hate, that revert them back into helpless, spoiled and angry children.

    Thus, when writing ” About Us”, here’s how the University of Virginia Department of English describes itself on its website:

    “ABOUT US –

    The English Department teaches texts that reflect and permit study of a wide range of voices. In order to do what we do well, we must be a place in which all students—the student who feels endangered because of threats based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, immigration status, body type; the student who has felt unwelcome because of unpopular political views; the student who is feeling isolated; the student who believes in the enabling properties of literature and language, the student who fears power that has been associated with literature and language, the student who is unsure what literature and language mean in a time like ours—feel welcome. All such students, indeed all UVa students, are welcome in our department and in our classrooms.”

    It’s getting worse too by the day in our K-12 schools throughout our nation.

    James A. Bacon | December 11, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Reply

    That’s a real English Department quote? My gosh, it’s a self-parody. Somehow, I’m guessing that the commitment to welcome “the student who has felt unwelcome because of unpopular political views” may not be to students espousing all political views.

    Reed Fawell 3rd | December 12, 2018 at 11:05 am | Reply

    Yes, Jim, that is the lead in quote written by UVA English Department to describe itself and its mission.

    UVA’s English Department takes its mission very seriously. To study English at UVA, here is what undergraduates must wade through in course offerings this year (Fall 2018; Spring 2018). This is a sampling. Read it all to get the message.


    Jim Crow America -Instructors: K. Ian Grandison and Marlon Ross

    Why has Jim Crow persisted? This course examines how the Jim Crow regime was established in New England during the early republic, how it was nationalized after the Civil War, and how it has been perpetuated into the present, despite the passage of 1960s Civil Rights legislation. What have been the changing modes of maintaining Jim Crow particularly in law (including law enforcement), education, planning, public health, and mass media (newspapers, film, radio, and social media); and what strategies have African Americans used to fight Jim Crow segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and economic exclusion. Focus will be placed on Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. as case studies. The course culminates in a required field trip to Richmond.

    Black Queer Culture – Instructor: Timothy Griffiths

    In the now-essential critical anthology Black Queer Studies (2005), scholars … announced three primary reasons for the formalization of black queer cultural studies: the need for a usable past in African American culture for black queer people, the traditionally patriarchal and heterosexist tendencies of African American cultural studies, and a perceived inhospitality in women’s and gender studies toward research on race as it intersected with gender and sexuality. When Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017, it was a sign to some that at least some minor progress had been made in the cultural representation of queer people of color. “Intersectionality,” though not always adequately defined, is now an acknowledged conceptual keyword of liberal and leftist culture. And in women’s and gender studies and African American studies, it is now becoming a given that critiques of race, gender, and sexuality are not hermetically sealed discourses, that the elevations and devaluations of certain identitarian markers are constellated in both deliberate and latent fashions. What are the primary critical problems faced by black queer cultural studies now and in the future? How can we continue to expand the usable past of black queer culture, opening up African American cultural production across its history to a black queer critical audience? Where have increases in black queer cultural representation succeeded and what are the discontents of cultural representation as a primary ethic of black queer liberation? How can or should we understand the relationship between the discursive histories of black feminism and black queer culture, and what conflicts have arisen in their mutual (but not always well-mapped) related growth? And finally, how do the anthologizing practices and theorizations of black queer culture elevate or exclude various iterations of black queer cultural expression, identity, or history? To answer these questions, we will engage a very broadly defined canon of black queer literature …

    American Natures – Instructor: Mary Kuhn

    This course explores an unconventional literary history of environmental thinking in America from the late eighteenth century to the present. We’ll move beyond the traditional environmental canon into (one) () one that gives us diverse perspectives on humanity’s connections to land and nature. We’ll focus on how writers have cultivated different forms and scales of environmental thought, and how they have positioned environmental thinking in relation to issues of social and environmental justice, including land dispossession, slavery, imperialism, and labor exploitation tied to resource extraction …

    Feminist Theory – Instructor: Susan Fraiman

    An introduction to US feminist criticism and theory. This course pairs novels and other works by women with critical and theoretical essays in order to contrast diverse feminist approaches. The syllabus is also informed by queer and critical race theory as well as postcolonial and cultural studies. I expect to explore such themes as mobility and migration, mother-daughter relations, the “male gaze,” incarceration/escape, female masculinity, and conflicts/commonalities among women. We will also broach such theoretical issues as how to periodize the development of feminist theory, the contributions of queer theory, the logic of canon formation, and the way gender intersects with other axes of identity (race, sexuality, disability, class, etc.) …

    Race in American Places – Instructor: Kenrick Grandison

    This interdisciplinary seminar uses the method of Critical Landscape Analysis to explore how everyday places and spaces, “landscapes,” are involved in the negotiation of power in American society. Landscapes, as we engage the idea, may encompass seemingly private spaces (within the walls of a suburban bungalow or of a government subsidized apartment) to seemingly public spaces (the vest pocket park in lower Manhattan where the Occupy Movement was launched in September 2011; the Downtown Mall, with its many privately operated outdoor cafés, that occupy the path along which East Main Street once flowed freely in Charlottesville; or even the space of invisible AM and FM radio waves that the FCC supposedly regulates in the public’s interest). We launch our exploration by considering landscapes as arenas of the Culture Wars. With this context, we unearth ways in which places are planned, designed, constructed, and mythologized in the struggle to assert and enforce social (especially racial) distinctions, difference, and hierarchy. You will be moved to understand how publicly financed freeways were planned not only to facilitate some citizens’ modern progress, but also to block others from accessing rights, protections, and opportunities to which casually we believe all “Americans” are entitled. We study landscapes not only as represented in written and non-written forms, but also through direct sensory, emotional, and intellectual experience during two mandatory field trips to places in our region. In addition to informal group exercises and individual mid-term exam, critical field trip reflection paper, and final exam, you are required to complete in small groups a final research project on a topic you choose that relates to the seminar. Past topics have ranged from the racial politics of farmers’ markets in gentrifying inner cities to the gender–and the transgender exclusion—politics of universal standards for public restroom pictograms. Students showcase such results in an informal symposium that culminates the semester. Not only will you expand the complexity and scope of your critical thinking abilities, but also you will never again experience as ordinary the spaces and places you encounter from day to day.


    Conjuring Race and Gender in National Memory – Instructors: Sarah Ingle

    This course examines the various forms of literal and figurative “conjuring” that have been used throughout American history to create and control the boundaries of race and gender. What is the source of this magic that has the power to turn a person into a piece of property or a woman into a second-class citizen? How does this metamorphosis take place? Throughout the semester, we will use literature, film, music, and other artistic media to explore how American writers and other artists have used conjuring as a metaphor to help them represent the strange ways in which race and gender transform and control people’s lives, as well as the powers that enable individuals to resist those transformations …

    Post-Reconstruction – Instructor: Timothy Griffiths

    In this course we will examine American literature of the Post-Reconstruction period, an under regarded and amorphous time in American literary development occurring between roughly 1877–1914. With a special emphasis on African American and women’s literature, we will consider how writers of this period anticipated American modernism; radically altered thought on the intersectional nature of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the republic; and gave birth to literary movements that are still vital today …

    Theories of Reading – Instructor: Rita Felski

    How and why do we read? …This course is divided into two parts. The first part, on critical reading, surveys influential forms of literary theory, including structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory. In the second half, we will explore everyday experiences of reading that are either ignored or treated with suspicion in literary theory: identification and recognition; empathy; enchantment and self-loss; horror and shock; fandom and the pleasure of collective reading …

    Contemporary Disability Theory – Instructor: Christopher Krentz

    In the last several decades, thinking about people with physical, cognitive, and sensory differences has moved from an exclusively pathological medical-based understanding to a more rights-based framework. In this course we will consider how conceptions of disability have changed and how these theories relate to the depiction of disabled people in literature … Students in the class will also be asked to attend at least one disability-related event on Grounds …

    Critical Race theory – Instructor: Marlon Ross

    What does race mean in the late 20th and early 21st century? Given the various ways in which race as a biological “fact” has been discredited, why and how does race continue to have vital significance in politics, economics, education, culture, arts, mass media, and everyday social realities? How has the notion of race shaped, and been shaped by, changing relations to other experiences of identity stemming from sexuality, class, disability, multiculturalism, nationality, and globalism? This course surveys major trends in black literary and cultural theory from the 1960s to the present, focusing on a series of critical flashpoints that have occurred over the last several decades. These flashpoints include: 1) the crisis over black authenticity during the Black Power/ Black Arts movement; 2) the schisms related to womanism (or women of color feminism), focused on Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple and the Steven Spielberg film adaptation; 3) the debate over the social construction of race (poststructuralist theory); 4) the debate over queer racial identities, focused on two films, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman and Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight; 5) racial violence and the law, focused on the Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement; and 6) the aesthetic movement called Afrofuturism. Other reading will include a variety of theoretical essays and chapters drawn from different disciplines, including legal theory, film and media studies, sociology, history, political theory, and hip hop studies. While concentrating on theories of race deriving from African American studies, we’ll also touch on key texts from Native American, Asian-American, and Chicanx studies. The goal of the course is to give you a solid grounding in the vocabulary, key figures, concepts, debates, and discursive styles comprising the broad sweep of theoretical race studies from the late- twentieth century to the present, and to nurture your own theorizing about race and its deep cultural impact.”


  6. You make a valid point; I never felt the need to live on campus myself. However, campuses do offer useful networking opportunities. On-campus relationships helped me to land more than one good job. I seriously doubt I would have made the same connections, in an online class.

  7. The biggest MOOC success story in a Virginia is Liberty University with 100k students. The cheesy way. And look how well that worked out.

  8. Online free? What’s your Cox bill?

  9. Jim, you are spot on with this piece. Tom

  10. My alma mater, UVa, has lost all standards of scholarship. Apparently an assistant professor can teach anything that comes to his or her mind and the University will not only permit it, but grant credit for it.

    I don’t know when it will end, but I know it will not end well and the Board of Visitors and President will not see it coming.

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