NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 23, 2010

Rather than continuing to expand federal subsidies for college students and student loan borrowers, policymakers and the private sector should focus on strategies to lower college costs.  A promising strategy is to strengthen competition between higher education providers by harnessing the power of technology and online learning, says Dan Lips, a Senior Policy Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at the Heritage Foundation. 

This is already happening in K-12 education.  Increasingly, states and school districts are using technology or online learning to improve the delivery and efficiency of elementary and secondary education, says Lips: 

  • As many as 1 million children around the nation are participating in some form of online learning.
  • Today, 27 states offer statewide virtual schools that allow students to take classes online, and 24 states and the District of Columbia allow students to attend a virtual school full time. 

For years, many higher education institutions have offered instruction online.  But these universities for the most part compete with traditional higher education institutions.  However, two trends have the potential to change that. 

First, an increasing number of higher education institutions are placing course content -- including lectures and instructional materials -- online for free: 

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is now putting virtually all course content online for free through its OpenCourseWare initiative.
  • The Web site has reportedly received 90 million visits from virtually every country.
  • Many other universities are also placing instructional content online; the Apple iTunes program, for instance, offers a "university" section that offers free downloads of lectures from many universities, including Yale, Stanford, UC Berkley, Oxford and Cambridge. 

Second, credit-by-examination programs are on the rise: 

  • These programs, similar to Advanced Placement and the College-Level Examination Program, allow students to earn college credits by studying and completing an exam remotely.
  • Through these types of programs, a student can earn college credit through self-study at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college course. 

These two trends could dramatically lower tuition costs and other student expenses.  Moreover, if more students pursue these opportunities, other important aspects of college instruction could be replicated in an online setting, says Lips. 

Source: Dan Lips, "Ways to Make Higher Education More Affordable," Heritage Foundation, WebMemo No. 2785, January 29, 2010. 

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