A $10,000 Stanford Degree

Several months ago Republican presidential contender Rick Perry made a startling suggestion to state administrators: “I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000.” At Stanford we pay about that much for housing in a year, but before we hastily dismiss the idea, let’s examine the possibilities.

The benefits of a seemingly mythical $10,000 education are obvious. Currently American unemployment numbers are around 9.2% – 14 million people are young enough to work but don’t have jobs, often because they are educated in a field that no longer needs workers. College attendance is also embarrassingly low – 68% of high school students matriculated in 2008. Imagine then, what a cheap college degree would allow us to do; structurally unemployed workers could spend a few years at relatively low cost reeducating themselves. High school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds would be able to attend college.

Monetary considerations are a significant factor for most students at Stanford- roughly 75 percent of you are on financial aid of some sort. Most students in this country aren’t as lucky as we are with aid. If they get accepted to college, they pay up and attend, or they stay at home. Our most precious national resources are the talented students rising through our education system, and we are forgoing the leaders, scientists, and entrepreneurs that they could transform into.

Usually this line of reasoning leads to a very popular argument about why financial aid should be more generous at all schools. After all, the price of college has risen much faster than inflation. But the central issue isn’t how much the student is paying, but rather why college costs so much in the first place.

I’ll put it this way: a Stanford University education should not cost $216,000. That isn’t how much I’m paying, but it is how much Stanford believes my degree is worth, regardless of the aid I’m receiving.
There have been several studies suggesting precisely why education has become unreasonably expensive. Perhaps the third parties who actually pay most of the tuition prevent consumers from being conscious of cost, or perhaps the value of a degree isn’t tied enough to tuition. But I suspect that many Stanford students would defend the price of attendance. They would say that the quality of education, the beautiful architecture, the proximity to Silicon Valley, is all worth the price tag.
My answer is this: maybe for you. But Stanford’s price tag is not worth it for the vast majority of students in the USA. When someone spends a quarter of a million dollars for a degree that makes few guarantees about career opportunities, it’s a horrible financial choice. Stanford and similar universities who are educational leaders have become symbols for waste – bundling top-notch education with luxury living.

What people need is a way to get educated without the excess – excellent education with extremely low costs. With the swelling internet revolution, low costs seem like the easy part; already organizations like the Khan Academy are making waves in addition to the many existing online colleges. The problem is that these institutions cannot make many guarantees about the quality of the learning they provide.

Stanford has the opportunity to be a leader in education once again. It is time that we step outside of the bubble and look at the millions of people who would consider themselves lucky to have one-tenth the education that we do. Andrew Ng and others in the Stanford CS Department have demonstrated that education can be scaled to vast audiences at low overhead, by providing online courses free for everyone.

But since the courses are free, they are currently a financial drain on the university. Given the astonishing enrollment numbers of the Stanford AI class (last count at 100,000), professors should come together and make full curriculums with online coursework. Because educational goals can be pushed online, costs can be correspondingly lower – professors like Sebastian Thrun raise the question of whether a CS master’s degree online might be earned for $2000.

A possible future now becomes clear. Anyone and everyone would have the ability to become as knowledgeable as a Stanford student in a strictly academic sense. Of course, many people will apply to attend the university in person – for networking, jobs, startups, weather – but those who attend will no longer have a monopoly on the educational opportunities that the rest of the country deserves.
A $10,000 bachelor’s degree? Not so crazy after all. And we need Stanford to lead the way.

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