2007 November 15 Thursday
Some Colleges Charge No Tuition

BusinessWeek has an interesting article about a small number of colleges which charge no tuition.

They range from an urban college like the Cooper Union in New York's East Village to Deep Springs College, a remote, all-male school deep in the California desert. Many are specialized institutions, often focusing on engineering, such as the F.W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.; or on music, like the Curtis Institute in Pennsylvania. A handful—the College of the Ozarks or Berea College in Kentucky—have mandatory work-study programs. Perhaps the most well-known of them is the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., which offers free college tuition in exchange for five years of service after graduation.

Students who attend these schools walk away from college with little to no loans, debt, and financial worries after they graduate. In most cases, the only fee students need to pay is room and board, a cost separate from college tuition.

Cooper Union College in New York City has a $600 million endowment it uses to pay full tuition costs of students. This puts Cooper Union in an interesting position: It is its own biggest customer. Therefore it has an incentive to keep its own costs down. I would be very interested to see how its costs compare to the costs of similar sized colleges that offer similar courses of study.

Higher education costs so much in large part because it is so labor intensive. This suggests the most obvious way to cut costs: reduce labor needs. How? Stop delivering most courses live. Use high quality video recordings instead. Also, use online tests. Make the delivery of instruction and the testing of students totally automated.

Check out a slide show of tuition-free colleges. This seems like an attractive option for those who want to study engineering. Some of the engineering schools in the slide show have fairly high admissions standards.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 November 15 10:25 PM  Education

Wolf-Dog said at November 16, 2007 5:24 AM:

Certainly within a few years the new internet will be so much more advanced that it will become possible to study at home. It will also be possible to interact with other students real time. Even undergraduate laboratory courses can be simulated with software. In the past, when I took sophomore electronics laboratory course, students had to build electrical circuitry manually, by soldering the transistors and capacitors one by one. At the undergraduate level, all science and engineering courses can be simulated.

Until the end of World War II, the main obstacle to the learning of most sciences and technologies, was that only a small number of elite universities had enough professors who really knew modern physics, chemistry, math, etc. Additionally, there were very few good textbooks for students, but right now in any subject you can find dozens of excellent textbooks you can study on your own, since these are not only well written but also full of examples and homework problems together with some solved problems. These days, knowledge is available everywhere. Thus once you buy a number of good textbooks and once you are given a carefully crafted study plan from the first semester of the freshman year to the last semester of the senior year, you can enroll in a university from home. On your large desk you can put 3 LCD monitors with at least 1920 by 1200 resolution, and you will be in very good shape PROVIDED THAT you have the study guide that clearly organizes the curriculum _AND_ its schedule. But the important fact remains that we still do not have well written study guides that constitute a clear curriculum for the courses, and once this is done, home study from the internet will be very possible. Actually, a well written course pack can be even more helpful than attending lectures at the undergraduate level.

Having said that, I must add by the way, that the Union College in New York, ranks VERY high in sciences. There are many small colleges in the United States that offer a lot more than high quality education: some of these liberal arts colleges have a certain "spirit" that cannot be found elsewhere. The American university campuses have been such a success that many foreign countries are trying to create similar campuses. Also, interacting with students and professors is also very important, but this can ultimately be done online.

But note that in top universities, professors teach no more than one or two courses per semester, and this is really very
little work for them. Most of their effort goes to research. And so the high tuition fees of Harvard, MIT, etc, are used by the universities to support the infrastructure of the professors who do research.

Another issue is that the top Ivy League schools and many other small private schools will be against such an internet based system because they consider themselves exclusive country clubs. They intentionally want to remain exclusive, with a small number of students, so that their alumni remain prestigious. In the future, it is possible that the new alumni organizations will be formed according to the fourth year GPA and GRE results after graduation. By the year 2035, you might be elected to Harvard or MIT, according to your grades and exam results at the end of the fourth year in "college" at home.

Ned said at November 16, 2007 6:53 AM:

As long as the demand for admission to elite universities vastly exceeds the number of available places, tuitions will continue to rise sharply and the schools will have no real incentive to control costs. The value of a degree from, say, Harvard or Yale, over one from, say, Central Podunk University, spread over a lifetime, dwarfs the relatively small difference in tuition (not to mention that Harvard and Yale have huge endowments - much greater than Central Podunk - to help the truly needy with their high costs). And even at elite universities, much of the teaching in lower-level courses is done by graduate students (TA's) under the supervision of senior faculty. It's also true that, in universities with active research programs, teaching is not particularly well rewarded. It's a checkoff-type thing when you go up for tenure. (Let's see, research activity - 28 publications, good grant activity - check! Taught the Introduction to Omphalology course for five years - check! Looks like she gets tenure!) Unless a professor does so well at teaching that he/she wins some sort of award or so badly that the students hang him/her in effigy outside the classroom, the quality of teaching, as opposed to quantity, gets little attention. Quantity is of some importance because the senior faculty mostly don't want to teach and are glad to have junior faculty members to suck it up for them. And tenure, of course, is a lifetime ticket on the gravy train. Some tenured faculty work very hard because they are self-starters and really like what they do, but many try to do as little as possible. They receive no reward for extra work but can never be fired - now what kind of person do you think that attracts? I know - I used to be a tenured faculty member (at a state university, not an elite private one) until I got fed up and left.

John Smith said at November 16, 2007 10:26 AM:

You forgot the honors college at CUNY. Free tuition, laptop, dorms, and stipend.

Also, what about letting offices IQ test for positions so they don't have to use college degree as a proxy?

TJ said at November 16, 2007 11:12 AM:

Mr. Smith,
Most businesses don't want to get near IQ testing. They are afraid of lawsuits because lots of blacks/hispanics won't pass. Griggs v. Duke Power freaked them out too much.

See here: http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2007/08/massachusetts-cradle-of-liberty-or-of.html

Not exactly corporate America but you get the idea. College degrees used to be a pretty good proxy until the left/liberals began to really destroy education with the quotas and set asides, preferences, etc...

Rob said at November 16, 2007 11:27 AM:

I wish I had gone to Deep Springs. I was seriously considering it, but I thought one had to slaughter cattle. It turns out some students work in the bean fields. I think I would have been better of, and have way more money.

Mark Seecof said at November 16, 2007 1:38 PM:

No doubt college (as presently organized) costs a lot because it's labor intensive-- Baumol's cost disease and all that, but there's another reason it costs a lot:

College is heavily subsidized. The government subsidizes colleges directly (grants and "guaranteed" student loans), then subsidizes them again by enforcing nearly perfect price discrimination (the "financial aid" process) by colleges running a government-policed cartel. The government provides a third subsidy by creating artificial demand for college degrees in hiring and licensing standards, and by permitting private employers to use (only) educational credentials as substitutes for direct tests of job applicants' mental abilities.[1]

It's wonderful to see ignorant voters support politicians who tantalize them with the carrot- on- a- stick of increased tuition subsidy. The current "financial aid" process is just the front end of a price-fixing, price-discriminating cartel which ensures that any increase in taxpayers' largess to students is rapidly transferred into college administrators' pockets (or at best wasted on status-display ("edifice complex") goods) with no increase in educational opportunity or output.

It may be undesirable (not to mention politically impossible) to eliminate all government subsidy (though that would have the best effect on cost escalation), so let me offer a plan which would achieve at least half of the total possible savings:

We should completely eliminate all "need-based" financial aid (at least, all government subsidy tied to "need") and replace it with merit-based aid. We should make available a large amount of taxpayer-funded merit-based aid (payable to students in the form of transferable vouchers), giving larger vouchers to students with higher test scores. We should also offer two or three bites at the apple (say, right out of high school, after junior college, and after undergraduate work for would-be grad students).

For example (I'm sure we could come up with a better array of measures), if you get 1400+ on the old SAT, you get five $30,000 vouchers (good for 5 or 6 years). 1300-1399, four $27,000 vouchers. 1200-1299, four $24,000 vouchers. 1100-1199, four $20,000 vouchers (still enough for two+ years of study at a $30,000/year school, so maybe you should do lower-division work in some JC). SAT 1000-1099, two $18,000 vouchers--take a skilled-trades course, or go to a JC and try to qualify for more vouchers afterward.

The advantage of this scheme would be better support for "poor but deserving" students. The taxpayers would be happier to support bright students, and the students would gain support in proportion to their ability to utilize it.

We should place no restriction on supplementing vouchers with cash but we should strictly forbid schools to ask students about their own or their families' finances. To prevent invidious price fixing, tuition rates should not refer to students' finances. At the same time, we should require all voucher-accepting institutions to publish their complete tuition schedules for public inspection, so students can factor price into choice of school.

(We should leave schools free to charge whatever they wish for different courses, or for day vs. evening students, or to give merit discounts, or whatever... We should simply outlaw demands for students' or their families' tax returns. You don't have to show your parents' tax returns to buy a book from Amazon.)

When we break the "need-based financial aid" cartel and make colleges compete somewhat on cost, cost escalation will slow or even reverse.

[1] Yes, the gov't schizophrenically undermines the relationship between mental ability and college credentials by imposing "affirmative action" quotas on colleges, but American government is so hypertrophied that some inconsistencies are to be expected.

Michael Lyubomirskiy said at November 16, 2007 3:09 PM:

The "Stop delivering most courses live" is IMHO just too facile, from the "every problem has an obvious ineffective solution" department. The answer is indeed to cut down on labor costs. The particular manner to accomplish it will be different in different cases. Sometimes it might be video. Sometimes it might be writing better textbooks.

Sometimes, and IMHO this is the most significant direction of research here, it will be to find a way to maintain the same quality of production while reducing quality of personnel. In other words, if we currently have 1 tenured professor teaching 50 students calculus, let's see if we can manage to get the same result with 1 professor, 5 assistants and 500 students. Yes, I know, many state schools already do that, and it does not work for them, but IMHO this is not an indictment of the approach per se, it just shows their incompetence (and/or lack of interest in) finding the technique that works.

Deskilling of the labor force is what has always driven economic progress e.g. replace master craftsman with a textile factory that properly manages hastily trained workers fresh from the farm. If this process would have been mismanaged (like it happens now with TA's), then it would not have worked. But when smart people figured out the right way to do it, then we got industrial revolution.

The same approach is needed in other labor intensive disciplines, e.g. education and programming are the ones I am more familiar with. We need to seek ever more clever ways to manage people, to achieve deskilling, to increase division of labor. Just like in a factory you have a single employee quickly trained to perform a few simple operations, the same approach should be pursued here. Students are like pieces of machinery going down the conveyor belt, instructors are like workers each doing his operation on the students. I know it does not sound as sexy as "let's switch to magic technology X", and neither is it in keeping with the "let's materialize out of thin air a legion of highly competent geniuses to teach our children" zeitegeist, but it is more in keeping with the way that labor intensive industries actually evolved.

And, by way of shameless plug :), here is my essay on labor productivity in education www.michaelpundit.com/tech/EducationThoughts.htm , in programming (via use of low skilled employees to continually document code base as it is being written) www.michaelpundit.com/tech/TeamDocs.htm and in info gathering and analysis for organizational management www.michaelpundit.com/tech/ManualAnnotation.htm . I hope people would find them interesting.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2007 6:48 PM:


The value of a Harvard diploma is greatly exaggerated. The vast bulk of the superior performance of Harvard grads is due to how smart they were and motivated they were (and in some cases well connected) to get into Harvard in the first place.

Wolf-Dog said at November 16, 2007 9:15 PM:

Randall Parker: "The value of a Harvard diploma is greatly exaggerated. The vast bulk of the superior performance of Harvard grads is due to how smart they were and motivated they were (and in some cases well connected) to get into Harvard in the first place. The vast bulk of the superior performance of Harvard grads is due to how smart they were and motivated they were (and in some cases well connected) to get into Harvard in the first place."

That was the whole point: the value of the Harvard diploma comes from the fact that the students were extremely well selected based on their potential.

But in the future, as testing becomes much more sophisticated and broader, it will be possible to construct computerized home study course packs that can compete with any expensive college, in such a way that those who get high grades in these courses, will also be highly esteemed, like a "Harvard" graduates...

This is precisely why elite schools will feel threatened by this trend, when it picks up in a decade when internet and interactive communication is more advanced.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2007 9:35 PM:

Michael Lyubomirskiy,

Deskilling in manufacturing has been combined with automation. The bulk of the increased value created per amount of money spent in manufacturing has come from the automation, not the deskilling.

I do not believe that recorded videos can entirely eliminate live teachers. We still need teachers to answer questions. But I do not think we need to be in the same room as someone in real time to watch and listen to them lecture on a topic.

black sea said at November 17, 2007 7:08 AM:

Just to follow up on some points:

1. The value of an Ivy League education is exaggerated, as Randall points out. This issue used to be debated endlessly at Half Sigma, but a few years ago, the Atlantic Monthly published the results of a study that tracked students who had been accepted to Harvard, but opted to go to less prestigious universities. After an interval of something like 8 or 10 years, there was very little difference in the outcomes. People smart and self-disciplined enough to get accepted to Harvard typically do very well, even if they attend Iowa State or The University of Florida. Obviously, a Harvard or Princeton degree adds a certain exclamation point to one's abilities, but people who think a degree from Harvard alters the course of one's life are probably banking on the prestige-and-personal contacts factor, rather than the intrinsic-quality-of-the-education factor.

2. Faculty at research universities devote most of their time and energy to resaerch because that's what the system rewards them for doing. It's irrational to expect people to sacrifice their own interests. However, much of this research is of little or no value, except as as way of securing tenure or a promotion for the faculty member.

We don't need so many research universities, and actually, we don't need so many universties. Faculty freed of the expectation of publishing research could easily teach more than twice as many course as they now do. Research universities should be elite insitutions focusing on graduate education, difficult to get into, and employing only faculty who have an established record of research performance. Some, perhaps optional, research could be done on a less demanding and time consuming scale at lower-level institutions, and those with the proven talent for research, and the willingness to put in an extra 20 or so hours a week into research, could then move up to true research universities. In other words, such institutions should be far less common, and more selecetive of both students and faculty.

3. The public at large should become far more skeptical of this notion that increased expenditures on education always produce benefits exceeding the costs. The law of diminshing returns applies in education just as much as it does elsewhere.

4. For a university education and degree to mean something to the student's life, it has to demand something substantial of the student. We are already at a point where a degree in some fields in no way guarantees that the graduate can do anything significant, even in his own field. More demanding programs would make for more educated and employable graduates, even in the humanities. Employers want to hire bright, capable people. If a degree in philosophy, for example, really demanded high levels of detailed analytical thinking and written expression, it would carry more weight in the job market, even though it's not directly realted to any particular career.

Not all areas of university education SHOULD focus on career building, but it is a bit disingenuous when people who breeze through a liberal arts or pseudo-science (sociology) program complain that their degree isn't getting them a job. Some degrees don't really demonstrate your capacity even to think, much less to actually do anything. Studying in that area is your choice.

By the way, I teach in a liberal arts field.

Wolf-Dog said at November 17, 2007 12:20 PM:

"We don't need so many research universities, and actually, we don't need so many universties."

Actually, recently for the first time some foreign countries are getting a lot more patents than the United States, and this is getting alarmingly worse. This is because we are training a lot less engineers and scientists than before. And note that although nearly half the students in sciences and mathematics in American universities are foreigners, they are no longer as eager to stay in the United States as before, and many of them actually happily go back to their countries to compete against the United States.

The shortage of high caliber technicians is so critical in the U.S. that the fact that American technicians want higher salaries by itself is not enough to explain why so many immigrant engineers and programmers are invited by corporations.

Thus the reverse is true, we need a lot more corporate and government funding for science and engineering in American universities, and research must be doubled, not reduced. Especially the corporations are so flush with cash that they do not know what to do with it, they are buying their own stock, but these corporations might as well give more money to the universities so that they do some of the research.

black sea said at November 17, 2007 2:22 PM:

Wolf Dog,

Are you actually claiming that the US is awash in talented, eighteen-year-old potential scientists and engineers who are forced to study literature and history, or nothing at all, due to a shortage of universities in the US? This argument is going to require some considerable evidence.

Simply increasing the number of universities is not going to produce a greater number of talented scientists and engineers. It's just going to produce more low-level technicans and biology teachers with inflated degrees, along with a lot of non-scientists and non-engineers with inflated degrees.

The issue of government funding for science and technology research is a separate one from the number of universities.

Increase in quantity does not necessarily result in an increase in quality.

Please see points 3 and 4 in my previous post.

Engineer-Poet said at November 21, 2007 8:34 PM:

If the US wants more engineers, technicians and scientists, it is going to have to give them pay and prestige equal or better than the alternatives of law school or the MBA programs.

Given the prejudice of management and pols against techies, this will be an uphill battle.

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