Sterling Spencer

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Free to Learn Universities, Is it Possible?

Now this may seem silly but I am looking at the possibility of Free to Learn universities. I am seeking further opinions on the matter because I would love to think that this could work but I'm not so sure it would.

I got the idea from Free to Play video games( I know, I know). The premise is that the game is free but items in the game are charged but you are never required to buy them. Game developers have actually made more money this way because the game is free more and more people come to play the game. That means there are that many more people susceptible to buying in game items and they are more likely to so because they didn't spend their money on the game.

How might this translate to universities? Well for starters, signing up for classes and renting books would be free(It will only cost them to buy the books). This would create a frenzy and students would sign up for this university like mad. Since the students would have more money in their pocket instead of a giant debt, they would be more willing to spend it and since there would be a lot more students there would be that much more potential.

Things that would cost money would be food and housing and maybe the University could find a way to gives students an incentive to buy things on campus rather than off and create many more student events to raise money.

This is where i need some help. When it comes to video games, there are the in game items that are charged. When it come to universities I do not see enough things, beyond food and housing, that can be equated with the charged items in games. Is there enough things that universities can find to charge students for so that they can make education Free to Learn or at least really cheap?

Let me know what you think! I think this has potential, but the idea needs to be taken much further. Thanks for reading!

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    Lejan .

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    Jun 30 2012: Hello Sterling,

    it may spark your interest, that according to the UN, a free to learn University could be at your hand and is plotted within the:

    International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (

    Article 13.C : Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

    By the help of this article I was enabled to get my Univertity degree without beeing charged for it. The only cost towards the Univerity was given in a small ammount of about $75 for each semester, by which the students council was supported and to obtain a ticket for the use of all public transport (bus, tramway, train) covering a whole large area around the town the University was placed in. By German law students from low income families could apply for a loan, which, if it was granted, was to be returned after finishing with 0% of interest rate. And later on if you managed to pay back a large ammount of this loan at once, there was even a discount granted, which in my case reduced the overal amount by 20%.

    Some years ago some states in Germany did rise a tuition fee of ca. $1600 half a year, which caused a long debate and is about to be withdrawn. The state I am living in, North Rhine-Westphalia, is canging it back to free of any charge this very year

    I do not know if the US signed that covenant, but I would highly suggest to push all of your congressman to vote for it if they haven't. If a small nation like Germany is able to install such a fair system, I do not see any reason why the US should not be.

    Each state who gives free housing, meals and even furter education to their soldiers is capable to provide this to all of their students.

    I first realized how privileged I was the moment I was working in the US and was told by colleagues that they started career in debts.

    Why not just start 'game over'? ;o)
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    Jul 6 2012: We must come to grips with the fact that there are no free lunches. Someone somewhere has or will pay for everything. If the university was free you would still have to pay for the books, labs, activities, instructors, administration, maintenance, facilities, and on and on .....

    Private schools have endowments in the millions and sometimes in the billions. State schools get funded from the state in the billions of dollars. Many schools are research schools receiving funds from government and industry. Sports bring in millions. Still the universities operate at a loss with all of the grants and finances coming in. In almost every state budget education is usuall third behind health/welfare and correction/public safety.

    Book publishers and teachers unions will never let your idea see the light of day. This is a multi-billion dollar industry and administrators, book publishers, test developers, unions all get big bucks. Professors and teacher at all levels gripe a lot but you do not see them leaving. They work (in our district) 863 hours a year for more money than most of us make working 2080 hours a year. Think about that. Griping is one thing but killing the golden goose is another story.

    Is it possible ... all things are possible. But not all things are likely.

    All the best. Bob.
  • Jul 25 2012: I like what your thinking here, and I'm a great proponent of free (or cheap) education. With limited government funding, uni's and colleges need to make money, they need to pay the staff to develop the online courses, staff to manage the courses as well as provide resources.
    How about the learning is free, but there is a nominal charge to mark a piece of coursework, or personal tutoring. If the core learning is online and free, but the extras are just that, extra and charged, could it work???

    looking forward to hearing others ideas....
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    Jun 30 2012: Do you think your scenario is more equitable than a regime in which students pay for the service they are actually there to receive, except that those with less ability to pay have their costs reduced by financial aid?

    To think through your idea, I would ask yourself two questions. First, in recognition that people who teach and mark papers and maintain buildings and grounds and so forth need to be paid, how would you be certain to cover these costs (rather than make that ability sensitive to your success as an institution in marketing goods, the demand for which may be hard to predict?)

    How would people game your system to bear less of their fair share of the costs, given their ability to pay relative to others receiving the same service?

    Also, there are free to learn universities that admit a limited number of students, there are students with financial need who go to university with a fiull ride, and there are universities that offer free courses to all in an auxiliary program without a degree conferred.

    In theory but I don't think practice, a country with such a priority could tax the public to provide free higher education in addition to free k12. Right now free k12 seems to be hard enough to fund from public resources, which need to come from people.
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      Jun 30 2012: I think it is a better scenario because I don't believe money should bar anyone from receiving a higher education.

      When it comes to paying the faculty maybe students would be required to use the University's room and board services. When it comes to marketing goods there could be a reward system for students who do their purchasing through the University. Hopefully this would make the demand easier to predict. ( Correct me if I'm wrong, but I am pretty sure the ability to cover costs is sensitive to all institutions' successes.)

      Your last question also brings up a glaring point: Students could buy what ever they want or need outside of the institution which would effect its financial success. Public tax for higher education I believe should be avoided.

      You bring up very valid points, and I admit, as much as I like the idea, I don't have all the answers, which is why I started the conversation. I want to see if anyone else has inspiring solutions that might make this idea more feasible. Let me know if you think of anything!

      Thanks for your input!
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        Jun 30 2012: Let's say now tuition plus room and board cost $50,000, which is 50% tuition and 50% room and board. Are you arguing that the room and board cost should be upped to $50,000 so that tuition would be covered? Or are you arguing that the room and board could be raised by some with the remainder of the unfunded costs covered out of purchases of goods and services that would be purchased by some students but not others?

        I am still concerned that your proposal actually makes it harder for those with fewer financial resources to partake of higher education, an inequitable result, because your system either subsidizes those with greater financial resources and ability to game the system or does not raise enough money in a sufficiently stable way to cover costs.

        The ability to cover costs is vital, as you say, and the current system of charging directly for services in relation to use but with a transfer to those with financial need us how those costs are covered reliably.

        I am only encouraging you to think through what you are proposing with the criteria of whether you could successfully cover the costs of providing the service (relianbly enough to have employees on contract) and whether more of the financial burden would fall on students with less ability to pay, because wealthier students would not need to pay tuition.
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          Jul 1 2012: Room and board should definitely not be upped because the cost to the student would be just as crippling. The cost of tuition would need to be spread out among all students to lower the cost via the purchasing of goods, but of coarse there is a glaring problem with this. The more students you have would hopefully help reduce costs, but with more students the need for more supplies rises which would increase price. You have also pointed out other issues and perhaps one day they could be solved to make it all work. Only time will tell.

          *sigh* Well maybe we could just find a way to get rid of the monetary system. That would make education free haha.
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        Jul 1 2012: Sterling, there is no need to put your idea aside so soon. Why don't you look at the ways students get free university educations now and see how the institutions where they go make that work?

        There is a college in the United States called Deep Springs, I think. Look them up.

        I don't know how old you are or how much you enjoy studying but the field that addresses how to finance services that offer both private and public value (like education does) is called Public Finance. You have to understand some basic economics first, typically, but you may know some already.

        Within the field of public finance, there is a very important idea called "incidence." Incidence is a great concern, both from the standpoint of how well your idea will cover costs and, to an even greater degree, on whom the costs will really fall. Sometimes the costs look like they are falling in one place but actually fall elsewhere.

        Meanwhile getting a great education for free is becoming more of a reality every day, with online course initiatives provided by Stanford, MIT, and Harvard (and probably others) as well as opportunities to learn online through all the information that is generated across the internet.
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      Jun 30 2012: This is true cash is still being handed over. However, using the game analogy, let's say one person buys a $50 game. That person spends $50. Furthermore let's say that 50 people start playing a free game and they each spend $1 dollar on an in game item. The same amount of money has been transacted but each person only pays $1 and the reason that many people started playing was because it was free.

      The goal is not to find another way to get a single student to spend the same amount of money so teachers can make a profit. Teachers will get paid in the same way they do because the money still comes from the students, but just in a different way.

      The goal is to get so many students to enroll that the same amount of money transacted is the same, but cheaper for each student, to make up for the education being free. In order to get enough students to do this there will have to be an incentive for them to come and that incentive is free education.

      So the questions are "How much money could be drawn in from other areas around the University while keeping total expenses as cheap as possible for the student?" and "Would this be enough to cover all of the school's finances?".