7 Modern Mutations of Universal Free Higher Education: It is Coming to the US Sooner Than you Think

Even as costs of higher education continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation, a several-century old educational innovation is taking new forms and threatening or promising to disrupt (or at least shake up) the existing educational ecosystem. I am referring to the concept of universal free education, an idea that transformed the Western world. We see this idea’s the incubation in the 16th century with a Moravian Brethren, Johan Amos Comenius, designer of the predecessor to the Rosetta Stone with his Orbis Pictus (World of Pictures), a text that taught Latin using simple drawings and related text. Comenius was also an early champion for universal access to education for men and women, and across different classes. From there we see the idea emerge with vigor and financial backing as we trace the growth of free public education systems around the world.

Past strands of this innovation focused largely on formal primary and secondary education, but it has also spread to higher education in parts of the world. Looking at the landscape in the United States primarily (but also beyond), I see a number of new mutations of this idea that have a direct impact on the future of higher education. It is difficult to discern which ones will survive and spread, and which our cultural vaccinations will kill off, but it is becoming increasingly clear that one or more of these strands will survive and thrive in the near future. The spirit of universal free education is an innovation that adapts and persists in the contemporary world.

Formal education is never free. Students may not be required to pay tuition, but there are still expenses: teachers, resources, time… Even in the world of open education, access to learning is often free and open, but someone is paying for the infrastructure that supports these efforts. Did you take a free MOOC through Coursera or EdX? It might not cost you money (except for the expense of the computer, Internet connection and whatever value you place on your time), but it costs plenty of money to design, develop and facilitate each of those courses.

Of course, when we talk about free education, we are referring to the direct financial expense incurred by the learner. By free education, we usually mean that it is funded through taxes and/or charitable given instead of tuition. The United States already has a massive free K-12 public education system, as to do many other countries. In addition, over 40 countries around the world offer free University education, some even offering stipends to students or extending the free education through graduate study. Others, like Denmark, are so committed to free education, that even foreign students can pursue their undergraduate and graduate studies at no personal cost (apart from the cost of living).

What are these new mutations of the age-old innovation of free and universal education? More of these are being identified every year, but following are seven, some of which are already well established, and others that have notable and exponential rates of attention and/or expansion.

Education as a Human Right 

While the vision for universal free education has been around for centuries, it was only more recently that people started to refer to it as a human right. Such perspectives place access to education alongside other current debates about the extend to which things like healthcare should also be considered a human right. If we don’t want this to turn into a highly politicized rhetorical battle,

It would be useful to clarify terms a bit, but framing education as a human right, as is done in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, leads to some intriguing questions. For example, the UDHR not only describes foundational education as a human right, but alongside that, it states that parents should have the right to choose the type of education for their children. This suggests not just a single common accessible education system, but a menu of accessible education options. Consider how many countries fund faith-based schools as well as public schools, which some could interpret as supporting the position of education rights in the UDHR. Regardless of this nuance in the broader conversation, the human rights perspective on education seems to drive us to think about how we can make it as accessible as possible…without the burden of massive personal debt.

Low-cost Competency-based Higher Education 

Not all efforts in competency-based education incorporate the plan to reduce the cost of education, but some clearly do, like Western Governor’s University and the University of Wisconsin Flex program. These are not free, but they are leveraging a more bare-bones model of education to cut costs and tuition. Further supplement these efforts with a tax base and we have a potentially workable model for universal free higher education. It does not mean that everyone will opt for this model, but competency-based education has enough of a research base now to show that it is a practical and effective form of educating.

Dual Credit Programs

This one is not on everyone’s radar, but it is already having an impact on the higher education system. For prepared students, there are many state-mandated (and sometimes state-funded) initiatives to give students remarkable head starts on higher education. For example, the State of Michigan pays for the tuition of high school students (in public and private secondary schools) who want to start earning college credit through dual credit classes (classes that count toward high school graduation but are also transcript-ed college credits from a given University). Some programs around the country are so generous that it is possible for hard-working high school student to graduate high school with 60 college credits or even an associate’s degree. While many do not think of it in such terms, this is essentially an existing model for free higher education in the United States. It does not seem like a massive step to simply extend things by another two years to pay for a full bachelor’s degree. And this is not new.

Open Course Experiments

Up until now, I have not been willing to join the conversation about MOOCs in comparison to traditional college. My reason for resisting was (and is) because doing so was too sudden and extreme. The merit of MOOCs does not depend upon this one possibility. They have value for self-directed learners even if they never result in a degree. And this is where I am willing to enter the conversation about MOOCs as a part of expanded higher education. MOOCs are currently primarily about learning and not credentialing. Where the existing higher education system is sometimes overly occupied with the piece of paper handed out at the end, MOOCs are currently drawing people who want and/or need to learn something. As such, they do play an important role in the conversation about universal free education, especially if we see education as being most importantly about learning, what I frequently talk and write about as a culture of learning over a culture of earning. From this perspective, MOOCs are visible reminders that the Internet and ubiquitous access that that Internet makes free learning available to all.

Existing Free Higher Education Models in the United States

There are already schools that offer free higher education to students in the United States. Some of them are among the most selective in the country, but if you can get accepted, they find ways to make sure that cost does not prevent you from studying there. Schools are using work study, charitable donations, and other models as well.

The Tennessee Promise 

This 2014 initiative, approved in April, is a promise to provide a free community college education to any high school graduate. This is currently the only state in the US that offers a free community college education to its entire young people. We will be watching to see how this works, financially and academically. How will it impact enrollment and viability of private and other 4-year institutions in the state and region? While this is nothing new to other countries that already have universal free higher education, this is trail blazing in the United States, and I except to see other states propose similar plans in the near future.

Alternative Credentials

Professional certificates, digital badges, nano-degrees, and other emerging forms of credentialing also seem to represent the spirit of universal free education. After all, the “right” to education is not about the right to a particular abstraction known as a traditional diploma. If that were the main goal, then we should welcome diploma mills or just invest in the postage necessary to mail everyone in the country a new and “official” diploma. It is what the diploma represents that matters. As such, alternative credentials have a voice in the conversation. To they extent that they represent and are perceived as representing true knowledge and skill acquisition, they also contribute to more widespread access to education. Open digital badge are no small part of this effort.

7+1 – The Learning Network

I know that I titled this article “7 Modern Mutations”, but there is an eighth that permeates many of the others, one arguable deserves a spot of its own. With the rapid expansion of the Internet (and the knowledge sharing, resources, connections and communities made possible by it), there is another important contributor to free and universal access to higher education. That is represented by the concept of the personal learning network. Through a PLN, each of us are capable of acquiring much of the knowledge and skill that others garner through a college degree. As K-12 schools pay more attention to their role in helping young people develop their PLN, they are also contributing the the cause of free universal lifelong learning.

Each of these seven strands are evidence that the century-old innovation called universal free education continues to spread. It is mutating to do so, but in remarkable ways that still seem to push toward the goal of increased access and opportunity through education. If I were in a leadership position at a higher education institution (Oh. Wait a second…), I would be having serious and extended conversation about these trends, preparing for the revolution of free higher education in the United States.

Posted in blog, education, education reform, higher education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.