Three Graces

Tuition-free MIT

an exploration of some ideas by Philip Greenspun

At Left: Three MIT undergrads and the wardrobe they were able to purchase after paying their term bill.


What would the Massachusetts Institute of Technology look like if we did not charge undergraduates tuition? First, let's consider how we look now. We set a very high price, sometimes after discussion with or following the lead of our competitors. We ask students to give us enough financial information so that we can figure out how much they can afford. Then we take all the money that we think they have. We are a not-for-profit tax-exempt institution. We would not do this in order to enrich ourselves. We do this because we want to help children from poor families get an education. So we don't look greedy. Or do we?

Suppose you got a brochure from United Airlines listing the fare from Boston to San Francisco as $1 million. However, the brochure stated that "because of our commitment at United Airlines to ensuring that every American gets the transportation that is his birthright, we offer financial aid." The brochure comes with forms in which you list every scrap of money that you have. You are instructed to send this into United Airlines along with a certified copy of your tax returns so that they can evaluate your need. A few days later, United Airlines writes back: "Great news. We have evaluated your financial situation and have determined that if we take more than $1,000 out of you, you'll be reduced to the homeless shelter. So we're awarding you $999,000 in financial aid and you only have to give us $1,000 to fly from Boston to San Francisco.

Nerds.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995. Does this make you applaud the philanthropy of United Airlines? Or do you just say "those bastards colluded with the other airlines to set an outrageous fare. Then they are behaving like a classical profit-maximizing monopoly by engaging in price discrimination, i.e., charging each customer the maximum amount that he can afford to pay."

[If United were following all of the university traditions, then they would have "overlap meetings" with the other airlines to make sure that Delta did not mistakenly offer you $999,500 in financial aid and cloud your decision about which airline to fly because of monetary considerations. The U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division and a federal judge's ruling put an end to this tradition in 1992, however. In theory.

MIT Graduation 1998 In fact, we're still colluding with other schools. We just don't sit down at a table with them anymore. As long as every school is using the same algorithm to determine financial need, no brilliant student will be offered a substantially better deal by any cartel member. Did you ever wonder why top universities are at such pains all the time to reassure you that they only award financial aid based on need? Well, they aren't talking to you. They are signaling to competitors they aren't cheating on the cartel by offering a kid with double 800 SAT scores a break. Here's some evidence:

]

There is some tuition price at which it becomes impossible for a university to avoid the appearance of greed. Note that in many Far Eastern traditions, you cannot be respected as a teacher or a doctor if you charge money for your services. Can we be respected if we charge $25,000/year? $50,000/year?

It is corrupting us

Henry Moore sculpture.  Killian Court.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT administrators like to point out the tiny fraction of the budget covered by tuition. The students aren't paying for anywhere near the true cost of their education. Really, it is almost an annoyance for MIT to have to collect such small sums of money from students and their families. We have more important things to think about. Our huge research grants. Patenting new biological gizmos. Milking corporations for $millions for new buildings.

Perhaps we used to believe this. And perhaps some of us still believe it consciously. But subconsciously, the truth seems to be that students are seen as our primary cash cow. When MIT had to pay $1.85 million to children unwittingly subjected to a radiation experiment in the 1940s and 1950s, VP for Research and Dean for Graduate Education J. David Litster said "I look on it as the tuition of 20 students" (The Tech, January 7, 1998, http://the-tech.mit.edu/V117/N65/bfernald.65n.html).

Why should we care?

MIT Graduation 1998
"It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. Come, be a man! Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies. I have professed me thy friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving with cables of perdurable toughness; I could never better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse."
-- Iago, Othello, Act I, Scene I
In an age when the cynicism and materialism of Iago seems no longer shocking but almost redundant, why don't I feel foolish arguing that we forgo all of this money? Because we will get better students, a better society, and... more money.

MIT Graduation 1998 Better students? If you had a child with nerd tendencies who was admitted to both Harvard and MIT, where would you send him? Honestly. It is going to cost you $150,000 and you'd be a fool not to ask yourself whether Harvard or MIT graduates make more money in the long run. At which school is he more likely to meet children of the aristocracy, people with family wealth (e.g., Bill Gates) who are certain to rise to positions of influence? What kind of a university can we have if all of our students were either rejected from Ivy League colleges or were too impractical to realize that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton provide better value for the staggering price?

Adriane Chapman. MIT Graduation 1998 Better society? If you graduated from MIT with $100,000 in debt and a love for engineering, would you go to work designing anti-lock brakes for $50,000/year? Or would you go to medical school so that you could join a profession where the average income is over $150,000/year? My top students in Course 6 are all telling me that they don't want to be engineers. They are heading for professional school. We will live in a society where the best educated engineers are not designing anti-lock brakes. They are either managing comparatively poorly educated people who are designing anti-lock brakes, stitching up wounds in people who were injured by faulty anti-lock brakes, or defending companies that got sued for their anti-lock brake systems that didn't work. You don't find too many law school graduates who aren't practicing law or too many medical school graduates are aren't treating patients or doing medical research. Yet so many MIT-educated engineers and scientists have left their fields.

More money?!? Every time we collect a dollar from a student, it seems to go right to our bottom line. What we don't consider is that each extra dollar collected from students makes it more difficult to collect from donors. If we were charging $1 million/student, would any rich person give us money? Do rich people make donations to United Airlines? Or do they assume that, since United is charging as much as the market will bear, they probably don't need the money as much as other charities. I'm not the kind of rich person that universities court for donations, but I did recently give away my minivan. A number of charities with full-time salaried bureaucracies and sources of revenue were put forward. I ended up giving the van instead to a husband-and-wife team running a no-kill animal shelter, mostly with their personal funds. I thought they needed it more. As we raise tuition prices, it will become increasingly expensive to educate donors as to why we need their money too.

Why do I care?

MIT Graduation 1998 Aside from the general reasons cited above, I have personal reasons for trying to make MIT tuition-free. Because of my public Web site, I get a lot of email and phone calls from parents whose kids are admitted to MIT. "My kid has been offered a full scholarship from the State of Oklahoma for five years at OU. We don't have much money and MIT wants to take all of it. Is he better off with a master's from OU or a bachelor's from MIT and $100,000 in debt?" What am I supposed to say? "Please cough up the bucks so that MIT can increase my salary."? "The Alumni Pool is kind of disgusting. Would you mind sending your kid here so that MIT can build an Olympic-size pool for me and my friends in Tech Square to enjoy"? It is rather an awkward position. Is there anything that I know that would be worth his kid paying $100,000 to learn?

[Actually, there probably is but I give it away free to anyone who cares to grab http://www.photo.net/wtr/dead-trees/;and I can't teach it at MIT because we don't have relational database servers available for student use :-( ]

Alex in front of the Green Building.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology Even if we can be sure that our education is worth $100,000 or more, should we charge as much as we can get? Should MIT operate by the same rules as, say, Microsoft? Despite our high tuition rates, there are still more applications than places here at MIT, so why not maximize profit? We don't have to go too far down this road before we must face the fact that MIT is a collection of people who are, though just as greedy as the owners/employees of Microsoft, not nearly as smart (since MIT is not as financially successful as Microsoft). We have to at least avoid the appearance of greed and profit maximization or people will think that we were too stupid/incompetent/lazy to get jobs at more successful institutions.

If we can't milk students, where do we get money?

MIT Graduation 1998 More than any other school in the United States, MIT is in a strong position to become tuition-free. If Harvard Business School were to ask corporations or government to give them money so that students didn't have to pay, it might be fairly pointed out that most MBAs were in school out of naked self-interest. Why should Joe Sixpack pay for a 25 year-old $100,000/year McKinsey drone's attempt to become a $250,000/year McKinsey consultant?

MIT Graduation 1998 MIT undergrads, however, are mostly going into fields where the government and a handful of large corporations are the primary employers. The government needs to hire thousands of relatively brilliant people at relatively low wages (compared to the professions) to design weapons, build bridges, clean up the environment, etc. The Fortune 500 for whatever reason has decided to pay their CEOs 50-500 times what an engineer might make. Yet they still need well-trained intelligent engineers to make new products work and root out Year 2000 bugs.

It can't be that tough to drive up to General Motors in a Toyota Sienna and say "If you give us the big bucks, we'll steal the smart people away from Harvard and B-school and send you some engineers who can make your cars as reliable as this one." We can also find crotchety old nerds who made $millions in high-tech companies and who are disgusted at being surrounded by MBAs and consultants. Isn't it more compelling to ask for money to mold a generation of brilliant engineers and scientists than for a new building for the Media Lab or Sloan School? Yet we have had little trouble getting the money for such structures.

Could we become leaner?

Alex in front of the Green Building.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology If we can't get as much money from the Feds and the Fortune 500 and the crotchety old rich nerds as we've gotten from bleeding students and families, then perhaps we can run MIT for less. The administrator/faculty ratio has doubled in the last 20 years, according to MIT Personnel Office statistics. Do the students need administrators to draft alcohol policies for them? Do the students need MIT-managed dorms? Do they need MIT-supervised dining services? Athletics? At one point, MIT students were paying administrators to watch pornographic movies and decide whether or not they were too explicit to be shown on campus. If they weren't paying $24,000/year in tuition, maybe the students would be willing to manage some of these things for themselves.

Certainly a tuition-free MIT immediately becomes $millions/year leaner. We wouldn't need to have a financial aid office. We would not need to offer student loans and therefore would not need to administer those loans or hire people to collect money from deadbeat students/parents. We would not need people to write brochures and Web pages describing financial aid policies or student loan offerings. We would not need to pay people to argue about whether those policies were fair. We would not need to pay lawyers to make sure we didn't get sued again by the Feds.

Note: I'm not talking about grad school

MIT Graduation 1998 This proposal is limited to undergraduate tuition. Graduate science and engineering education at MIT is either being paid for by research grants (RAs), internal funny money (TAs), or fellowships. Certainly there is no reason to refuse the reseach grant or fellowship money. The only graduate students who are regularly paying tuition are getting MBAs at the Sloan School. Most of these can immediately get the money back from management consulting and Wall Street firms, some of which explicitly offer a "tuition-rebate" signing bonus.

What am I actually doing?

MIT Graduation 1998 In my engineering department (electrical engineering and computer science), we claim to offer special expertise in building products and services that are vital to society. If this is true, we ought to be able to find some way of getting money that does not involve shaking down middle-class families in Oklahoma. If this is not true, then we ought not to be teaching.

I have decided to stop personally participating in the system of extracting money from MIT kids and their families. On Thursday, March 12, 1998, I guest-lectured an MIT class (on designing database-backed Web services). I calculated that the students were paying about $80 in tuition/lecture-hour. I withdrew a stack of $100 bills from my BankBoston account and I handed one out to each undergraduate in the course. I then proceeded to give my talk, telling the students that I was happy to teach them but I was not going to take their money.

Anxious to get the MIT community to read this Web page and take practical steps toward becoming tuition-free, I sent some e-mail to the student newspaper (the Tech). Right after I sent that off, I thought to myself "maybe I can get my dog Alex into the New York Times two months in a row" and sent some e-mail about the give-back to Bill Dedman, the Times reporter who ran a photo of Alex back in February to illustrate a story about some of my research. The staff at the student newspaper never answered my e-mail or showed up and the New York Times called my house at the last minute to say that they had to pull their journalists off to cover the breaking "asteroid is going to destroy Earth in 2028" story. But word of the event leaked out and a variety of reporters showed up or called for the story, including Jon Marcus from Associated Press, Richard Chacon from the Boston Globe, and crews from two local TV stations (Channels 4 and 5).

My friend Jin watched me on Channel 5 and said that I looked like "a homeless psycho". The next day, the story was one of two on the front page of the Boston Herald. Newspapers from the London Times to Chosun Ilbo (Korea) picked it up. CNN ran the video from the local Boston stations. It was on NPR Morning Edition and talk radio stations around the country. The BBC called me for a radio interview that they broadcast in Europe.

Here's what one of my readers sent me:

"Getting the media involved is a terrific idea, but not without its hiccups. Every hour between newscasts on my local radio station a doddering Paul Harvey spews a blurb about MIT professor Phil Greenspan(sic) who *has* to pay his students $100 to get them to attend class... and only four showed up. Sigh."
[actually there were about 25 people attending the class, not counting reporters; the confusion about the number stemmed from the fact that some attendees were graduate students or medical doctors]

If the press didn't present my ideas exactly as I would have liked or the facts quite as they were, all the publicity at least encouraged some folks to come to this Web page.

What can one person accomplish?

Richard Chacon of the Globe asked me if I realistically hoped to change MIT. I replied that there were obviously too many people with a stake in the present system for anything to change overnight. "Then why do it?" he pressed me. I replied that mostly I did it so that I could sleep at night with a clear conscience. However, I do think, after so many years in and around MIT, I have a responsibility to try to nudge our institution closer to behaving as it would behave if I were running it. When I was an undergraduate (Class of '82), we were upset by the more-than-50%-in-four-years tuition increase imposed on Us (the students) by Them (the administration). If an undergraduate tells me that he has to drop out because his family can't afford MIT anymore, I conceivably could say "blame Them". But realistically, from the undergrad's or parent's perspective, I am "Them". If I do not refund students' money, I am benefiting from the system that keeps tuition high and families pinched. If I do not attempt to change the system, then I am in fact supporting it.

Was it worth it? Obviously being interviewed in all of these newspapers and radio shows has taken some time and enraged various MIT bigshots who can squash me like a bug. But I knew it was worth it when one faculty member, a genuinely nice guy, came to me and told me that I was mistaken: MIT was very generous with students and the cartel financial aid policies substantially assisted poor families. Anyone who wanted to attend MIT would be able to do so without undue financial duress. It turned out that his own secretary had in fact dropped out of MIT around the time of the Justice Department prosecution of MIT. She and her family decided that they couldn't afford for her to graduate. She had worked for this faculty member for five years and was not shy about telling her story to anyone who asked. He had never asked.

What can 10,000 people accomplish?

MIT Graduation 1998 In one fundamental way, MIT hasn't changed since its founding in the 1860s: most of our ideas are available only to those who are able to physically show up on campus. I think that going tuition-free will improve the quality of the people who show up and the quality of our interaction. However, it won't help those who are unable to make it to 77 Massachusetts Avenue.

MIT Graduation 1998 The need for education is growing even faster than the world's population. If we are such great technologists, can we not come up with ways to distribute much of our knowledge to interested people worldwide? We could do the obvious things, e.g., putting Internet connections and cameras in our classrooms so that lectures are available on the Web as streaming video. Schools like Stanford have been doing this (with analog video) for decades with mixed success. We will need fundamentally improved computer programs that facilitate interactions among students and teachers so that (1) it is easier for instructors to put course materials on-line, (2) students physically on campus have a richer experience, (3) students who are off campus can look over the shoulders of those on campus, and (4) students who are off campus can have their own community and interaction.

If we are the great programmers that we claim to be, it ought to be possible to do this so that the cost to MIT is minimal and so that there is no loss of focus among the people physically on campus. What about the people off campus? Can the average person really learn without structure and externally imposed deadlines? Perhaps not. But that doesn't mean we at MIT should add "handholding those who aren't on campus" to our plate. If we engineer our collaboration systems properly, it should be possible for third parties to organize traditional or Web-centric classes using MIT lectures and course materials. We can even let them use our servers for private collaboration among their students and teachers. The marginal cost to us will be small (I have been doing stuff like this personally since 1995: http://www.photo.net/philg/services.html).

Anyway, that's my ideal world: a high school girl in Vietnam with a cable modem attending all the MIT classes that she wants.

I've been taking some small personal steps in this direction. I've been doing research on the best ways to build community-style Web sites, of which a site for a class is one example. I've been doing research on ways to manage Web services so that multiple community maintainers can share one computer and RDBMS installation. I've figured out how to do all of this with practically zero budget for administration and support. Currently my software is in use for 6.001, MIT's introductory computer science course. We'll see how it goes...



All photos were taken on the MIT campus (many during our 1998 graduation) and/or are of tuition-paying MIT undergraduates. See photo.net for the rest of my 6000 on-line images. Photographs and text Copyright 1995-1998 Philip Greenspun.
philg@mit.edu

Reader's Comments

Delightful suggestions. One number which would be relevant to the analysis, but which is not well publicized by either of the obscenely wealthy Universities I've been associated with is the ratio Alumni donations/Tuition income. I've often wondered whether the alumni donations could pay the administrators while the tuition income could pay the migrant lecturers and keep the buildings standing and the libraries filled. If so, and if the administrators could simply be persuaded to leave-- but I think that's the hard part.

-- L W, March 12, 1998
I do not know that I agree with your basis premise, but I apppaud your guts and commitment. It is very ususual in our to society to see:

1) Someone who actually puts his convictions into action;

2) Someone who personally pays to put his position into action;

3) Someone who is willing to go against such a powerful institution;

4) Someone with a stack of hundreds.

-- Tom Shea, March 12, 1998

I had five years at Oxford University in England -- and neither tuition nor maintenance cost me a penny (both under- and post-grad degrees). This is all about to change, as the UK goes down the pay your own way route. What a mistake!

However, I would have to say, that very broadly, the American students I met, at both stages, (and there were a lot) were much, much, more highly motivated and focused than we were.

Academics I know who have taught on both sides of the Atlantic confirm this. I am afraid that I think that this does have something to do with the financial commitments that US university education demands. (This is especially so in the humanities, where in the US they are a passport to graduate schools).

I applaud your gesture, however.

-- Martin Davidson, March 13, 1998

I love the analogy to United Airlines.

Still, I too wonder if students will value their educations as much and work as hard if they are not paying. I also wonder if MIT could become still more unresponsive to student needs/desires if no tuition was involved.

Perhaps one solution to the former would be to charge a tuition based upon your record/grades so far. Or alternatively, just pay students that get good grades!

-- Bob Givan, March 13, 1998

I applaud your gesture and sentiments sincerely. However....

We have a society (in America) in which the basic building blocks of a fruitful life are not available equitably in any sense of the word. To wit as long as there are problems in areas such as:

1) housing from the obvious (the homeless) to the anonymous people living in substandard public housing.

2) no universal health care.

3) horrible public schools (and I'm talking about the physical structures and "food" even more than the teaching) for our children.

4) the unbelievable subsidies given to the most polluting of our transportation alternatives - automobiles and airplanes - at the expense of public transportation.

I find it hard to get too worked up over the notion however valid it may be of universal access for brilliant children to MIT. Nonetheless, thanks for your thoughts, actions, and for providing this forum for reply.



-- Bill Allen, March 13, 1998

I should respond to Bob Givan, if only because we were office mates at MIT and he was kind enough to help me solve many a thorny math problem...

I think Bob's point that a research school like MIT is in danger of becoming completely unresponsive to undergrads is a good one. I'm personally dismayed that, even right now when we're charging undergrads $100,000/pop, I have a better chance of getting run over in Harvard Square by a Boeing 747 than I do of getting MIT to pay for the development of facilities for or a class in databases, Web-supported collaboration, or anything of the other things that I do.

I guess this is all wrapped up in the "no credit for an academic career will be given for anything other than a paper in a journal" philosophy of modern universities. I don't want to fight or argue against that right now, but at least we should stop making the undergrads pay for our little club.

-- Philip Greenspun, March 13, 1998

It is all well and good for one to get up on a soapbox and point out the failings of the world, but it is another thing entirely to take a productive physical action to correct those failings. However once you step down from that soapbox and make that first physical action, you can not stop. There must be more actions to follow. These actions need to attract those that feel the same way and in turn cause them to act positively. This is the way all great change occurs.

I am a prospective MS Chemical Engineer who when choosing college picked it for the price. I would have liked to attend Princeton, or MIT, or Georgia Tech, but since my parents are farmers/teachers I choose to go to Tennessee Technological University. I got a good education in the basics of Chemical Engineering. Any deficiencies I might have are directly my own fault, and therefore I say was it better to bankrupt my parents to get an education that was for the most part only in name better? I have decided the answer is no. I would like to say that in the end it all comes down to you as an individual. Remember you are your own best teacher, whatever you might be learning. If you don't beleive me then spend some time looking at all those self-taught scientific greats and you might just change your mind.

-- Sam Morton, March 13, 1998

Phil's giving $100 bills to his students should be viewed independently from the notion of making MIT tuition free. Phil has selected a group of students that he feels will contribute something valuable to society (the ones interested in his lecture on) making database-backed web sites, and he's choosing to subsidize their education directly. Similarly, if companies or the government feel that a better engineer offers better value, they're better off subsidizing that engineer directly, perhaps before school through scholarships or better-yet after graduation through higher salaries (which can support borrowing to pay for tuition) and which will attract more students to engineering. This also has the effect of giving students the choice to attend the university that they believe offers them the best engineering degree for the money.

While engineering salaries might not equal that for an orthopedic surgeon or McKinsey partner, they're overall not that bad. Why they're not higher is an interesting question.

As an aside, note that the government does make tuition free for engineering students at some universities: the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, West Point, the US Coast Guard academy.

Also, for a free engineering education, students can go to Cooper Union in New York City.

-- Richard Lethin, March 15, 1998

Richard, you're a genius and a good friend (and a thoughtful old-style computer scientist), but you've missed my point. I didn't give the kids back their money because I wanted to subsidize them; I gave them back their money because I can longer accept the idea that they and their families are subsidizing me. I didn't want to personally profit from a system that I've claimed is unjust (and that the federal government claimed was unlawful). Not only do I think it is unjust, but, though at one time it might have been very profitable, I think it is no longer in our institution's best interest.

One thing that I should really add to my article is a stronger argument against using economic reasoning. In my opinion, MIT should not operate by the same rules as, say, Microsoft. Just because the market will bear our prices doesn't mean that we should constantly strive to maximize profit. If we go down that road then we must inevitably face the fact that MIT is a collection of people who are, though just as greedy as the owners/employees of Microsoft, not nearly as smart (since MIT is not as financially successful as Microsoft). We have to at least avoid the appearance of greed and profit maximization or people will just think that we were too stupid/incompetent/lazy to get jobs at more successful institutions.

-- Philip Greenspun, March 15, 1998

I truly think that MIT could save a lot of money if they did not have to support a huge administrative body that does very little!

-- luigi vacca, March 16, 1998
I would like to echo the comments of the gentleman that commented about the free educations in Britain and the apthy of the students there. If students don't pay something they won't repect the chance they are getting. However, as a person who experienced (like Phil), the doubling of tuition when I was in school, and who now has kids only 10 years away from college, I think that students (parents) ought to pay, just not so much. Colleges should be more lean and mean, funds should be sought from more alternate sources, and students ought to pay $5000 a year. That's it.

Bravo to Phil and his public stand on the issue. To swipe a phrase from the folks at be.com, "Resistance is not futile!" Keep up the good work.

-- Robert Dodson, March 16, 1998

As a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon (sort of a down-market MIT ;-) who did not pay any tuition (Dad was faculty) I can endorse this idea whole-heartedly. In addition I can add some thoughs on the economic equation here: 1) the cost of attending college would not be zero even if the tuition were zero - the cost of living is still non-zero, and supporting oneself while attending college full time is not without difficulty. In addition there's the 'oppurtunity cost' of lost earnings during the time one attends college. Presumably the pay back in earning power will more than compensate for this, but it is a risk.

2) I think that universities would benefit from this as well by removing the incentives for 'grade inflation'. Its tough to flunk out someone who's contributing 100K to your top line ;-).

3) the instinct to not value anything thats free is a well known phenomena, btw. for instance chess clubs will often charge for introductory lessons that they would happily provide for free because it helps attendance and insures that the instructor isn't wasting their time. I think that making the grading more rigorous would help to limit that problem by making a high GPA more meaningful, and thus making the resulting degree more valuable.

-- Lee Schumacher, March 16, 1998

Robert mentions $5000/year in his message two slots up. It is funny because that's almost exactly the figure that I calculated as the cost of educating a college student if classroom space and Ph.D. lecturers were purchased at market rates ($30 sq. ft. for downtown office space and $2000/course for a Ph.D.; sorry about the low price for the instructor but that actually is the market rate right now (I know because I have a bunch of friends who are teaching classes for this price)). If you think it sobering that office space costs more than Ph.D. instructors, then you need to read http://photo.net/philg/careers.html :-)

Lee raises a good point in the above message. The opportunity cost of not working is quite high here in the U.S. Perhaps European students linger in school and appear to take it less seriously than Americans not because of the free tuition but because there aren't any jobs for youth in Europe.

Lee's point #2 about the difficulty of flunking a student who is paying the rent is a good one. I was having an argument about MIT's policies of race discrimination in admissions with a friend of mine who works in the MIT administration. She was defending MIT's policies as noble, despite the high dropout rate of those admitted to fill quotas.

I asked her how hard she thought MIT would work to fill race quotas if we had to refund the tuition dollars of those who dropped out. She didn't like the idea too much...

-- Philip Greenspun, March 16, 1998

As someone who attended CMU, who has seen friends flunk out, and who left voluntarily myself, I have to say that its administration has no problem flunking out someone who contributes directly to the bottom line. From what I gather they have a pitiful endowment & low alumni contributions* so tuition actually winds up paying significantly for undergrad courses.

(*MIT students joke about hating the place. A not-insignificant number of CMU students really do.)

I applaud Phil's actions. If nothing else, a tuitionless school would remove a significant barrier to success: The stress of knowing you're bankrupting your parents, making good performance all the more necessary. I know it was so for me. I bet it was for a lot of the people who killed themselves

-- Chris Hanson, March 18, 1998

I also applaud Phil's actions. It is refreshing to see someone taking action on his beliefs. I'm sure it was refreshing for those students too. I do have mixed feelings about free tuition though. If all the students who would attend a tuition-less MIT were like Phil then there's no doubt that it would work. That's not likely to be the case though. I, like Phil, spend a great deal of time thinking of ways to improve things, wondering why something/someone doesn't work/think this way or that way, etc. My response is usually "wel...not everyone is like me." I think that applies here.

Never the less, I agree about the excessive cost, but I also agree about lazy students. Lets face it. money drives things in America. Its unfortunate, but its true so until that changes, we have to work within that framework. Someone mentioned something about the value of "free." This is my main concern...I would love to see an increase in the percieved value of something that is free. To this end, I also applaud Phil's other efforts to benefit the web community throughout this site. Well done!

-- Justin Loeber, March 19, 1998

A recurring trend here has been the mention that making a school tuition free will result in lazy unmotivated students. It doesn't seem that this would necessarily be the case for the following reason:

Say a school has a certain capacity of undergraduates it can run through it's system in each year.

Eliminating tuition dramatically increases the acceptance rate vs offers extended which would result in too many students.

To maintain the numbers at the previous levels one would obviously then have to make fewer offers to more carefully picked people.

Theoretically the school then ends up with undergrads who are less likely to be 'lazy' to begin with and can always be kicked out if they develop 'lazy' habits.

Now the problem with this model is that schools are often not terribly good at discerning people who would be exemplary students from those who would be mediocre. This model seems to show that the emphasis would be placed even more strongly on the schools opinion of current and prospective students.

So, which tradeoff is better? fairness in regards to wealth? Or a slightly increased error of merit based selection? (Along with a vastly increased sense of paranoia, extreme competition, etc.)

Everything in life is a tradeoff. Our quest should be to find the sweet spots.. Like 2 f-stops down..

Oh well, it won't affect me personally again for some time as I think I'm done with the academic world for now..

-- George Pang, March 20, 1998

I have long considered tuition and financial aid grants a mechanism for price discrimination. I would prefer a system where family finances are completely isolated from the process. Schools should compete fiercly for the very best students. Candidates with doulble 800 SAT scores should be offered low-cost educations, no matter what their family financial situation. That way, presumambly, society will direct resources to those who can best benefit, and contribute, from the investment.

There is also the problem of early and secondary public education. We do not have a system that offers anything even close to equal opportunity (as opposed to Equal Employment Opportunity attempts of equal outcome).

-- Robert Budding, March 20, 1998

Having graduated from a private university considered world class in the engineering specialty I chose, and having followed employeement for 9 years at one of the largest and most successful corporations in the world with 8 years of successful self self employment, I long ago concluded that while engineering fundamentals are essential building blocks to one's capabilities, the individual's desire and intelligence will ultimately govern performance in the real world regardless of educational pedigree.

A quality education is much less dependent on the effort that the university puts forth than that of the student. A university education should be a means to an end, not the end itself. When competing against or collaborating with other professionals I could give a shit less which university siphoned off their money. What I do care about is how are they capable of performing. In my experience this does not necessarily correlate with the reputation of the university from which they graduated.

The answer then, it would seem to me is take the full ride at OU or wherever and forget all the hand wringing over whether your son or daughter is being cheated out of the educational benefits of the most expensive degrees money can buy.

-- G Deen, March 20, 1998

I'm the product (or soon to be one, anyway) of a Canadian schooling. Now, while we like to think we do a lot of things better than you yanks ;) I can sy for certain that our post-secondary education system (publicly subsidized) is prob. as good as many of the schools in the States. Yes, I include Ivy League/private schools in that statement. I agree with the basic tenet - it is unfair for the student (and his/her family) to take the brunt of the educational cost when that education has uncompensated externalities to society. I think most will agree that an MIT education is not only beneficial to the student who gets it, but to society. The only challenge is in assessing what is basically an economic (read: ethereal) number.

Another comment, about distance education. I'm all for it. The U of Alberta, while good, simply cannot afford the quality of instruction that some other places can. I think the future of undergraduate education will move to regional systems with "superclasses" taught by extremely good professors, with the costs for the technology and instruction borne by several institutions. This has the effect of spreading the costs and the benefits out to many more people. However, what do you think about a "critical mass" theory, such as Porter's? He believes that a geography-based mass of talent afforded an industry (whether it be the Detroit automotive sector, Silicon Valley, MIT, or Hollywood), has a greater positive effect than disparate groups of people. Will the girl in Vietnam with the cable modem get a "true" MIT education, or is the culture of campus (hacks, suicide, hot n' humid Mass weather, high stress, late nights) also important?

-- Chris Neuman, March 27, 1998

The question that I am trying to answer as an entering freshman is what will my rewards be for such a monetary investment? As Philip pointed out, with tuition rates propelling at a ever- increasing rate it would appear foolish to pursue a career in art(my passion), while the true return on my parents investment would be the wrangling of an M.B.A.. Unfortuately, I am seeing students select majors that will not satisfy themselves passionately, but financially.

-- Jason George, April 7, 1998
As is common in Europe, higher education is free in the Czech Republic as well (for Czech students, that is - foreigners must pay a great deal, and I'll add that the government here is now trying to introduce tuition for all students).

I think the system of free higher education is wonderful, and wish I'd been able to take advantage of something like this (I am an American). One thing to look out for, however, is students "lingering on" in school for as many as ie 8 years before getting a BA, or dropping out needlessly. Of course, this happens everywhere - but it makes the system more inefficient & should be especially discouraged in an environment where the student is not paying his or her own way.

If I were Boss of All Universities Everywhere, I'd consider the advantages of making just the standard 4 (or however many for your field) years free, and those who don't finish in the standard period of time would pay for each additional semester (year, whatever :)

Thanks for a wonderful site.

PS It *is* hot and humid in Vietnam! :)

-- Nora Mikes, April 9, 1998

I would like to comment on a few subjects:

1) the perceived value of something free. I will just take an example that I think speaks for itself (at least for any computer geek ;-)). Which of the two do you think bears the most value: Linux or Windows ? Which of the two is free ?

2) Free/Cheap education in Europe and in Canada. I took engineering in France at INSA. This a public university which means that tuition fees are very low. I will have to agree with the person from the UK, not all students were highly motivated. However most manage to get their degree in a place where failing a student means less costs (not less profit). So now I have a degree, and I have a job with above-average wages. What that means is that in turn I pay more tax to subsidize universities. To me this is fair. The key I think is that education should be a right (not based on your/ your parents financial situation), not an obligation in order to get a decent life.

3) A good part of the education I got from my University was related to the environment (extra scholar life). The university looks ugly (old early 60's building falling apart, lack of money (?)), but the social life was so predominent that I learned much much more than just engineering. There are over 80 student-run organizations running at cost for a community of 3000 students (imagine paying 10$/year to see 3 movies a week in a theater). I challenge any university with 100K$ fees to have such a dynamic and productive student life. In fact I had the oportunity to spend my final year in Canada (at Ottawa U), and even though the tuition fees are low, the cost of living for a student is a lot higher. The result was that yes students were more "academically" motivated, BUT apart for the minorities groups, I have not seen much student organizations nor any will for them. I think it comes from the fact that most student worry about how they are going to pay for next semester more than how to take advantage of their situation. My opinion is that University is not just about a degree, but it is an environment that should be enabling and provide opportunities for people to experiment and get involved at a community level. I believe that this is better achieved if you relieve students from the stress of finding a place to live and something to eat (and pay the tuitions).

-- Patrick Bihan-Faou, April 11, 1998

After digesting all the interesting comments, I am beginning to see the following points clearly:

1) A student of the nth class can pay to attend a school of class n or get a full ride at a school of class n+1. This seems fair. The main problem which occurs: there are many more students than schools, so that there is a subset of students attending a 1st-class school like MIT who would actually qualify to attend a 0th class school except none exists; thus MIT unlike the 2nd-class, 3rd-class etc, schools faces no competition from above and can collude with the schools of its own class to charge full price. (The 2nd-class schools can't get away with colluding because they face competition from above; also there are too many of them.) The obvious solution is to create a small 0th-class school (maybe small enough that one of the many billionaires in this country could endow it once and for all with a few hundred million dollars so that it could be free; the alumni of such a school would no doubt be much richer and more generous than, say, Harvard grads.) This problem affects the top few percent. A different problem affects the few percent of nth-class students who are actually given a free ride to a school of class n-1 -- it is difficult for the student to resist this temptation but the dangers of accepting it are great.

2) But the broader problem is that the cost is too high for the great majority of 1st-class students who properly belong at MIT and are gouged unconscionably. Everyone seems to recognize that the positive social externalities of giving a 1st-class education to 1st-class students merit some subsidization; the two issues that arise are how high the overall level of subsidization should be and how the subsidies should be distributed.

3) It seems clear that simply redistributing the current subsidy won't help because only a small percentage of students could afford to pay significantly more than they are currently being charged, at the cost of even uglier price discrimination than currently exists. Somehow the aggregate burden on the undergrad students must be reduced. The government subsidizes loans nicely, but direct funneling of tax dollars to the top schools for tuition has severe political and economic drawbacks. On the other hand, where else can such a large amount of money come from?

4) We need a "free lunch". Fortunately, free lunches *do* exist when markets are inefficient. And boy, is this market inefficient! As many people have pointed out in earlier comments, costs at the top schools are insanely high, and the reason is simply that they *can* be, because there is no economic competition as there would be if MIT and Harvard were private companies subject to antitrust laws and shareholder pressure. The people who run the universities don't feel threatened when the bottom line suffers--the effect of runaway costs is well- muffled by the structure of the university. The component that is actually affected in the end is the endowment, which doesn't grow nearly as fast as it should have, but that has an indiscernible impact on the ordinary functioning of the university.

5) So the answer is to do what many American companies successfully did in the 80's and 90's -- improve performance by tying executive compensation more directly to the bottom line. Universities don't have stock options, but why not create endowment options? The president of the school and other important administrators should have base salaries that are quite a bit smaller and bonuses tied strictly to growth in the university's endowment -- they can achieve this by cutting costs, pressuring alumni, or whatever. Naturally this will give them an incentive to keep tuition high, but there is no additional blood to be squeezed from that stone, and the overall improvement in the school's finances from cost-cutting, improved fundraising, etc., will take pressure off the undergrads and in the long run lead to tuition reductions.

-- Joe Shipman XVIII '82

-- Joe Shipman, April 18, 1998

What Mr. Greenspun has done is admirable. It is admirable because he has taken a stance when he could have remained seated while making more money.

I myself chose to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology because my parents were already paying for an Ivy-League education and I did not want to make them pay for two.

I believe that I got an excellent education at Georgia Tech. That is something that the rest of the world admires about the United States, if you want to learn, you can. The resources are there.

One of the projects I was involved with at Georgia Tech was all about that, at least to me. It was about giving students and professors more access to resources and better learning and teaching environments. It was about making the lectures available after they had ocurred, so that a student might be able to "experience" the lecture again from their dorm room or home. It was about making all aspects of the material and the way it was portrayed available for someone to access easily.

Please look at: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/fce/c2000/index.html

I don't see why we can't use these same tools to provide education to anyone who wants it. And I mean anyone anywhere. I myself had to move from South America to attend university here, because those resources were only available here. I would have liked to have the option of getting the education I got from Colombia.

Bill Gates wants to put a PC on every desk in the world, well we can use that for our advantage. These PCs will most likely have modems and therefore their users have access to any resources that we, the technocratic upper class, provide. Lets take advantage of this. It is the right thing to do.

-- Yonatan Feldman, April 24, 1998

Someone made the brilliant observation that the government does in fact pay to educate engineers via the US Navel Academy, Air Force Academy, etc. Its sad that I have to point this out, but, IT IS COMPLETELY POINTLESS TO BECOME AN ENGINEER IF ALL YOU ARE EVER GOING TO DO IS FIND BETTER WAYS TO KILL PEOPLE. I'm sure the US governemnt would love for smart people like me and the other 10,000 MIT students to find new ways of killing all those enemies we don't have, but the thought is morally repugnant to me and every other engineering student with a conscience, something money can't buy. Not yet anyway.

-- Mike Salib, April 30, 1998
I'm graduating this spring from highschool, and will soon be heading for college. Many college students are in the boat that their parents are paying for a lot of the college education, and they are getting scholarships, and loans to pay for the rest. I am in a different boat. I am actually spending my own money to go to college. My parents aren't going to help me in any other way than free room and board if I pick a college close enough to live at home.

I was accepted at Penn State Main Campus. But when I looked at that and the state college (I'm in PA) up the road from me, I saw that Penn State paid the most attention to their grad students. The state college doesn't have a graduate program for computer science, so the professors pay more attention to undergrad students. Penn State didn't care whether I went there or not, but the state college really wanted me to go. Penn State will leave me having to pay off large college loans, forcing me to take a high paying job to pay the loans off, the state college will leave me debt free at the end of 4 years, able to do what I want, whether that is go to grad school, or take a job as a part time waiter and spend my evenings and weekends creating the best computer games and application software in the world, then giving it away for free.

In the end I chose the state college. The quality of courses looked to be on par between the two schools. All Penn State would have offered me is a big name diploma and lots of bills. If I need/want the big name diploma I can go to grad school later.

-- Joshua Boyd, May 13, 1998

I don't live in the USA, but may I suggest that the whole problem you have with "the system" is even more deep seated than you are imagining.

In reality, a University education is not really worth a damn. The system exists because...

a) Employers like to see the certificate

b) It keeps the government unemployment figures down

c) Historical reasons.

People learn more in 6 months of real work and real life than they do in 4 years of University.

I've learnt 500 times more than I ever did at Uni just through personal research in my spare time. I've learnt another 500 times more doing the practical things my job requires. What I learnt at Uni is quite frankly useless - even if I could remember what it was - which I can't.

The real answer is to reduce Uni courses from 3 or 4 years down to only one year. Make it much more affordable, the corporate grants would go 3 times further, kids would get out and earn money sooner and waste less time in Uni.

-- anonymous anonymous, May 18, 1998

I applaud Phil's ideas, and I sincerely doubt that any students would value their educations less because Chrysler paid for it instead of Mom. I certainly wouldn't have.

When I applied to universities seven years ago, I faced a situation directly impacted by the phenomenal costs of tuition at MIT. I was accepted to MIT for undergrad admissions, but because my "ability to pay" (the amount, after loans, that I'm expected to have out-of-pocket) was set at about $2000 a year, I wasn't able to go.

$2000 a year may seem like a steal to most undergrads (or their parents), but my mother was not interested in paying any of my tuition, for reasons I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that I had no choice, and no funds. I was also using the proceeds from my $5/hr after-school job to pay my portion of the rent, for similar reasons, so there was no way in hell that I would have been able to save up the $8-10K necessary by the time I left for MIT.

As far as scholarships were concerned, I was out of luck. I had a 1440 SAT score and a genuine desire to learn, but my high school grades were awful because of my constant boredom with the feeble education my San Diego public school provided. I'm male and part of an ethnic group that is assumed to be wealthy, so no help there. In short, I received about $500 in potential aid, far short of what I needed.

I ended up going to a local community college for two years while working part time jobs to scrape out a living, then abandoning the whole process to take a full-time job as a Web programmer. I'm currently using the sad salary this produces to pay for my wedding, but I hope to save enough money to transfer to a UC school by fall of 1999. Note that this is about the same time I would have received a Physics Ph.D. had I gone to MIT. I was hoping to develop a quantum theory of gravity (hardly a money-making venture) by this time, perhaps ushering in a revolution in technology the same way electronics and quantum mechanics have. Who knows? Perhaps I still will.

-- Chris Radcliff, June 5, 1998

There is nothing wrong with making lots of money, but I was (once) under the impression that knowledge, learning and research for it's own sake was worthwile and that places of higher education where the place for this to happen. If "higher" education is about only higher money then I think that we are all worse off.

-- Philip Stebbins, June 15, 1998
Dear Phil, in you essay "Why I'm not a writer" you made the following remark in conjunction with a bitter-sweet life story of James Wilcox: "There are people who are good at doing things. There are people who are good at kissing ass and taking credit. These bundles of skills seem to be at odds so that one rarely finds them in the same person. In most areas of human endeavor, if you want to become famous or just put food on the table and are forced to choose between the skill bundles, it is much better to pick ass-kissing and credit-taking." If you combine this remark with the Darwinian theory you'll see why our society is the way it is, probably as long as your remark remains relevant we are doomed to be a species where ass-kissers and credit-takers dominate.

-- Michael Livshits, June 20, 1998
wonderful essay and photographs.... there should be more use of the net for this....

-- alan d. Smith, June 25, 1998
To all those who talk about the money/motivation correlation, I say "not so fast!". While there might be a great motivation the results from spending a great deal of money, Phil is arguing that it's motivating people to do things that are not necessarily as socially productive if they hadn't accumulated a massive debt in the process. Secondly, schools are treating their students more like customers and less like the pupils that they really are. As a results, at Stanford (to name names), the policy is very flexible in permitting students to "buy" an A by dropping a class the day of the final and then re-taking it with out any penalty on one's transcript. If you can "afford" to take extra classes, you can raise your GPA by dropping classes that are below your target GPA.

In private high schools, teachers are told by students that since the students pay the tuition, the teacher's job depends on making the students "happy."

Here's a radical proposal for sticking with the idea of tuition-free schools and keeping students motivated: give degrees to the students that exhibit the motivation and the competence to deserve the degree, and give no degree to those who don't deserve it. In it's present position, MIT (and other universities) are compelled to give degrees, even when they have not been earned academically because they have been earned [sic] financially.

-- Michael Tiemann, July 14, 1998

I have read some comments where people link the motivation of the students to the tuition they pay. I have a hard time believing in that. I studied international trade at the Sorbonne in Paris for 5 years. The highest tuition I paid was around $500.00 for the last year. So, money was not a concern. However, when you enter, it is made clear to you that, at the end of the first 2 years, only 50% of the students make it to the next year, the number raises to 75% after that. If you fail, you can take the exam one more time the next year. After that, you have to change school, the Sorbonne will not accept you (this was the case for the "Economics" section between 1989 and 1993, it might have changed). Students were pushed to succeed if the ever wanted to graduate and have a chance to enter Ph.D. programs or Masters programs, which judge you only on your academic results. Motivation comes from the sanction of your personal work, not from your wealth. From what I've heard from American friends, it seems easier to move on from one year to the next in American universities (for undergraduates anyway). The difference seems more to be in "how much university you can afford" rather than how good you are (this is a caricature for the sake of my argumentation, do not flame me: I am not saying American students are lazy, French students are hard workers. I am a living proof of the opposite...) With that said, I believe, like Phil, in an "non-money selective" educational system.

Yet, I am faced with problematic questions when I try to envisage alternatives. Free or quasi-free schools have one drawback: they have to be financed mainly by public funds i.e. taxpayers, even if their own kids never go to the university. Basically, every year, French taxpayers do exactly what Phil did in his class: they give $100.00 to each French student. However, as opposed to Phil, they don't have the opportunity to choose to do it. I will never be thankful enough to the millions of French taxpayers who provided grants for me and my fellow students. So, on one hand, I agree with Phil that the tuitions requested by the American Ivy League schools are prohibitive. On the other hand, what is a fair alternative? Is it fair to make everybody contribute to something from which they will potentially never get any return? No country can seriously rely on philanthropic funding of its school system. Some isolate case would prove me wrong, but I know I am globally right. I would also be disturbed to see large companies completely fund universities. It would imply that they have some kind of tacit right to also inculcate their corporate culture to students. Universities are supposed to be a placed of free speech and creative thinking, not necessarily turned toward marketable results. Corporate financing goes against that, in my opinion. What will happen to "non-productive" topics, such as art, philosophy, or history? Is any corporation going to see the point of unselfishly funding these sections? You tell me.

So far, for me, a socialized school system is the only viable alternative to a private educational system, whether it becomes a virtual university, as Phil prescribes, or not. They both have their pluses and minuses. I still like the socialized system better. One because I have the honesty to admit I used it to my advantage; two, because every students are equal and given an opportunity to be judge on their intrinsic value rather than their family wealth, but, still, it is not a perfect system. I would be interested to see someone, especially our host Phil Greenspun, sharing his/her opinion on that matter.



-- Stephane --, July 17, 1998

So much to say, where to start?

I applaud your putting your beliefs into action in this way. I don't agree with everything you are saying, but it is refreshing to see someone 'put their money where their mouth is'.

I agree with what you and most of the people here have said about rising administrative costs relative to instructor costs. I think this is inevitable in any large not-for-profit endeavor - as soon as your organization grows large enough to require full-time administrators, these administrators will seize control and start building empires. Just look at what has happened to the health care industry since the creation of the Medicare / Medicaid programs.

I also agree that it is high time for industry to start subsidizing education, but on a strictly voluntary basis. Let industry support those educational facilities that provide the most value to industry, this should create some healthy competition. Unfortunately from where I sit (just finishing a gig at a major pharmaceutical mfg) it looks like most of the big companies with big bucks are also run by beancounters (professional managers) who see things differently  to them an MBA is worth at least twice as much as an MS.

I disagree with the main plank of your plan (free tuition), but before I go into that let me give a little personal background. I graduated from high school in 1975 with about a C+ average. I applied to the local state university (UMKC) and was accepted, but never registered and never attended any college or university, instead I was lucky enough to get a job at one of the many companies that started up and failed in the early days of the micro 'revolution'. A couple more startup/failures and I was on my way to a glorious career in the IS field.

Why didn't I go to college? It wasn't for lack of ability. I'm a pretty smart person (when I was about 19 years old an MIT Prof. told me this so it must be true); my poor grades mostly reflected my lack of motivation and overall boredom with school. At the time I told myself that money was the big factor.

True, many people support themselves and pay their own way to college. I wouldn't even have had to support myself. My parents would have supported me; they just couldn't afford to pay for me to go to college (and probably continue to get Cs). At the time I saw college as an extension of high school and I wasnt really motivated enough to flip hamburgers at night and try to stay awake in class all day.

Given my background one might think that I would be a supporter of free college tuition. I'm not. And although I don't believe in government subsidized education at any level, this isn't the primary reason I oppose 'free' college education.

At one time, the average person had six years of schooling, the 'educated' person had a couple more. I once worked for a man who went to Harvard after ten years of public school. No, he didn't skip any grades, ten years was all that was offered at the time and place where he grew up.

When I was a kid, the big advertising push on television was to finish high school. We all grew up knowing that if you wanted to get any kind of decent job (i.e., not digging ditches) you had to have a high school diploma. Today we are close to a situation where the average person entering the workforce has at least two years of college, and to be considered 'educated' you must have at least a master's degree.

Is the person with sixteen years of education today (typical BA / BS) really twice as educated as the person with eight years of schooling (six years grammar school, two years of University) two hundred years ago? I don't think so. True, there are many things one has to learn today that they couldn't even imagine then, but I think there are probably almost as many things which were an essential part of daily life then which are only of interest to anthropology / history students today.

So, if the BA / BS of today doesn't mean the same thing it did one hundred years ago, what effect will free undergraduate tuition have on the situation? President Clinton wants to make sure that every one who wants one can get a college education. When this is accomplished how will the truly motivated people distinguish themselves? They will have to get even more education. An MS / MA will become as common as a BS / BA is today, and the Ph.D. will become as common as an MS / MA is now.

Bottom line: How long can society afford to support people while they get an education? Sixteen years? Twenty years? Thirty years? Is more free education the solution or is it the problem?

I agree that the system is broken. I dont think that free tuition is the answer.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to express myself.

-- Les Lovesee, July 17, 1998

I'm going to respond to Stephane's thoughtful comments above regarding the French system and a socialized system of education.

Stephane: don't lose sight of the fact that I'm not proposing tuition-free education for all Americans at all schools. I've nothing against this idea but I haven't really thought about it. As an employee and graduate of MIT, I'm merely proposing that we (MIT) would be better off as an institution if didn't demand tuition payments.

As I note in my article, MIT is in a unique position to get corporate funds because very few of our students are studying the "non-productive" topics you mention ("art, philosophy, and history"). So we don't have to try to educate some crass business executive about the long-term value of studying Milton and Donne.

As far as Stephane's comment about universities being places for creative thinking not necessarily turned toward marketable results, let me repeat that it is tough to expect students to live this way if we're reaming them out of $150,000. Most people don't have the luxury of merely spending $150,000; those few lucky enough to get their hands on that kind of money end up thinking instead about how to INVEST it. So the university education becomes an investment on which the student must strive to earn a return. This disheartens me. Much as I love to see some of the MIT kids I've trained earning $175/hour building Web/db applications (they are now worth more to industry than the average CS professor!), I'd really rather see them pursuing truth and beauty.

-- Philip Greenspun, July 18, 1998

I'm posting this anonymously as some of my comments directly relate to the university which I currently attend.

I must first say that I am opposed to corporate funding (at least directly) for univeristies as this will almost certainly control the direction and programs offered at the university. While it may work for a very specialised university (such as MIT) it would not work for a more generalised university (such as the one I attend). If a corporation were to fund such a univeristy they would surely only wish to provide funds for programs that they felt would directly benefit their company (such as computer science or engineering for example). This would create the situation where programs deemed less useful by the corp would not receive funding (such as many of the arts programs) which would result in these programs being underfunded (even more so) and thus being removed.

I would much rather see a higher system of taxation placed on corporations making large ammounts of money, with the funds going to the universities, based on student population. This money would then go towards providing better quality programs as well as lower tuition fees.

As far as not apreciating what is free, I feel that this is somewhat true but is untrue in other ways. Because we must pay for our tuition many students feel they cannot study what they truly want to do but instead study what they feel will give them a job after graduation. Look at the number of comerce or compuer science students as an example. One student I know told me that he was taking comerce because he wanted to make money when he graduates. He was failing badly and went on academic probation. When he returned to school he transfered into theater and is now much happier.

By making tuition free (or much cheaper) you would result in encouraging more students to follow what they truly feel motivated to do. If competition for spots in the next year/semester was also increased then this would still encourage students. Students would also be unable to resent this increased competition because they would know that they weren't paying for their school and so competition had to be high.

I think that one of the major problems is that we live in a society in which money is considered to be the most valuable thing. If you have more money you must be a better and happier person (not always the case though). So you have to study something that can let you make lots of money.

In addition to this, employers place an over-high value on a degree. Unfortunatley, anyone with the money seems to be able to get a degree so the degree is really worthless. The degree says nothing about how you performed in school and so a C student and an A student are considered equal in the employers eyes (as all they see is the degree).

I would like to see a system in which tuition is cheap or free, competitiion for spots is high, and where the degree actually means something.

Personally, I find that even though I pay for my tuition (through loans) that my motivation is still low. Why? Because I am more motivated by learning and if I'm taking a class that doesn't make me think or explore new ideas then I don't feel motivated by it. I don't care about my marks either, I care about what I got out of the class. Funding needs to be increased in order to provide greater quality teaching.

As a final example of the current system, I study in a small department. In my second year I was feeling un-motivated by one of my classes because I felt that I wasn't getting much out of the class so I didn't go to it as often and I didn't do the work. But, the prof knew that I wanted to go on studying in that department. Because of the very small size of the department (4 profs, 8 students in my main 3rd year course) he couldn't fail me. He had every right to do so as I hadn't completed the work but since I wanted to go on he had to give me the minimum mark required to continue. This situation isn't that uncommon and only cheats students and professors. The prof in question was also very young and that was his 2nd year of teaching. He grew increasingly disillusioned over the term as he saw how the system was cheating him and the students.

Thanks for letting me get all of this out! Great page! Keep up the fight!

-- anonymous anonymous, July 23, 1998

Three cheers for Phil.

The fact is, private college education, particularly as it is practiced by the grand ivy pooh bahs and their brethren is a gigantic exercise in income redistribution. That which the folks who write federal and state tax policy have not been able to do, the nice people cited in Phil's POV have accomplished. It's astounding to think that tax payers who squak so intensely about paying taxes and the intrusiveness of various government agencies comply so willingly with the nearly identifcal ministrations of the bean counters at the great institutions of private learning?

Here's the slammer. Take a look sometime at the size of the endowment at places like Harvard (which is the most egregious). What is all that money for? Then look at the amount of money that is paid out. It's generally about the same as the yield on a treasury certificate which is considerably less than the internal rate of return on their well managed portfolio.

The fact is, the entire student body could attend for free just based on investment portfolio performance over the last ten years.

Does that mean tuition should be free? No. Does that mean there should be a more rational view of educational pricing? I think Phil has advanced an argument in favor of that. Will anything change? Eventually I think it will for two reasons:

1) The next economic downturn.

2) The internet which will marginalize bricks and mortar in the hallowed halls of academia just as it has in banking and any other dozen segments of the economy you care to name.



-- Kevin Hoffberg, August 15, 1998

When I was fired as a university administrator for trying to catch an embezzler, I decided that I wasn't able to survive on instinct, so I needed some intellectual strategies. Using my education (BS MIT VIII'50, MA PhD Columbia) I invented a science of human behavior. It is on the web at http://surf.to/2000.

I think that a tuition-free MIT is irrelevant because it will just reduce the spiritual power (or "mana") of MIT in a world that bases status on money. The internet will lead us into a world Norbert Wiener described where the only ones who will be allowed to work will be those who can do something better than a robot or computer. This will create an elite "working class" and a "liesure class" that will be supplied with whatever satisfies their needs as long as they keep themselves occupied and quiet. Tuition will be, like selling food and shelter, an obsolete concept.

-- Karl Eklund, August 18, 1998

Does MIT offer something that, for example, UMASS doesn't offer for undergrade engineering? In 1976 I asked just that question, and decided the answer was "no". The course offerings were identical. Over the years, I've worked for Purdue (a state school), Harvard, and UPenn, and have concluded that I was right. UMass should have the edge with size.

On the other hand, WPI (private engineering school in Worcester) offered pass/fail courses, independent study and required projects. WPI wasn't (and isn't) cheap, but IMHO, was worth it.

Despite excellence, WPI had to constantly fight to retain accredidation. Some departments (EE in particular) found ways to teach by the old rules. The status quo can be an ugly Goliath, even to an institution sized David.

It goes without saying that the web-student must be self-motivated. Self-motivation may be helped if there is a carrot at the end of the tunnel. (for some, maybe not).

Traditional exams are very poor at testing ability and skill. That means the accredidation problem continues. It's worse for anything new than for the status quo, since anything new must prove that it is superior to the status quo, whereas the status quo must only prove that it is the status quo.



-- Stephen Uitti, September 28, 1998

Your first few paragraphs - describing how Universities charge for tuition - look remarkably like your description of how Database Vendors charge for their software. Hmmm .

-- Steve Buxton, November 24, 1998
I come from a Third World country and can't help but get excited from your comment about hoping some day a high school girl in Vietnam can attend all the MIT classes she wants through the NET.

The idea in my opinion is about as radical as Karl Marx's ideas and would generate similar monumental changes in our century. Historically, "have" nations have been able to dominate and overcome "have nots" and continue to do so because of more advanced technology i.e. gun powder, superior metallurgy etc.

I have to thank people of conscience like yourself who can see class inequities and have resisted being swallowed up in a highly competitive society where the measure of your worth is the amount of dollars you can extract. I pray that you and other pioneers of the NET will be successful in your noble quest and that mankind in the next century will be the better for it.

-- Jack Congson, December 11, 1998

A free MIT. Very interesting. I'll bet if tuition were free the caliber of the student body would improve dramatically.

A replacement for the lost tuition income could come from a semester of the third undergraduate year devoted to inventing. The university would patent the inventions, license them to business and share the income with the student. I will also bet the patent income will over time exceed the lost tuition.

-- Chris Doner, December 21, 1998

Phil's article struck a nerve.

I went to Harvard as a freshman (on one of the few merit scholarships available in 1982) but dropped out after a year when the scholarship ended. I wasn't eligible for financial aid because my mother, who had made poverty-level wages the year before, maintained a savings account (she works in an industry where year-long unemployment was fairly common, so she set aside savings for lean years). It turned out that the financial aid algorithms required exhausting all savings before a student becomes eligible for any significant aid. I knew people at Harvard who were getting more financial aid than I was offered whose families had yachts and vacation homes. Apparently these don't count against financial aid the way a savings account does. All the private schools used the same algorithm for aid calculation.

I dropped out, worked for a year and ended up at UCSC, from which I eventually graduated (paying most of my own way with some help from family). Now that I'm making good money, I send UCSC donations every year, earmarked for student scholarships and library books (no alumni wine-tasting parties). Harvard still sends me financial aid pleas, which go into the recycler. I was rude to them on the telephone because they kept pestering me for money, and told them why I wouldn't contribute; finally they got the message and stopped calling.

I hope Phil's vision of college courses on the web comes to pass. It would also solve the continuing education problem, for adults who want to take advanced college courses but can't afford the time or tuition to enroll in a graduate degree program.

-- Akkana Peck, December 31, 1998

The idea of free universities in the USA is enticing, since our economy is presumably doing so well. The one free-university I know about is one I visited frequently last summer: Universidad Central (UCV) in Caracas, Venezuela.

While I met many wonderfully idealistic and thoughtful students, the physical infrastructure and faculty of UCV have serious problems, in part due to a grave lack of money for salaries and maintenence that is related to the economic disaster of the country.

Though it is plausible that the nations corporations will eventually pick up the slack, as has been proposed in an article in Business Venezuela, one of the nation's premiere business magazines, I shudder at the thought of making corporations that involved, since they have only one major reason for educating anyone: to develop a large supply of effective workers for their industries who posses technical skills. They are not likely to value the liberal, humanistic education that universities have traditionally stood for.

I think it dangerous to let the private sector's money contaminate the interests of higher education in our country more than it has already.



-- Mike McVey, January 4, 1999

While I agree almost completely with Phil's opinions on tuition, the chief reason I am stepping up to speak is to applaud his ability to create this display of both intellegence and concern from the mass of stupidity that abounds on the internet. I have just discovered this web site and am amazed at the quality of content. It makes the "Favorites" on my browser appropriate.

Thank you Phil for the forum and thank you participants for your comments.

-- Joel Londenberg, January 27, 1999

The return on investment for an engineer attending MIT or any other expensive school is poor. While starting salaries may look reasonable ($40K-$50K), the salary compression is such that salaries after 15 years are barely over $70K in the corporate world. Simple financial calculations (NPV) will show that is is not a good way to invest $150,000, especially at a cost of 10-11% interest. As Phil says, this leads to many engineers leaving their profession for more lucrative fields. As an alternative, most large corporations will pay today for your undergraduate and graduate education. The typical requirement is that you earn a C or B in a class to get reimbursed. ( The downside is that you must do this while working and most universties look down on working engineers, especially at the graduate level. Most professors prefer full-time foreign indentured grad students who fawn at their feet and work endess hours on the professors pet projects. Add to this the fact that many engineering professors are picked from this internal group so that many engineering courses lack any relevance to the real world. For this reason, at least in information/computer systems, college degrees have little correlation with rates.) A better investment for a high school student interested in a good practice as a engineer is to get an associates degree from the local community college (where course are usually taught by Phds in small classes as opposed to non-english speaking grad students teaching 5000 student classes). At the same time the student should get a basic certification such as Microsoft or Cisco. At this point, he/she should apply for a job as an engineering aide at a large corporation and immediately enroll for BSc to complete his/her education at company expense. Additional industry certifications such as Cisco's CCIE will lead to salaries in the $125K-$150K arena after the engineer leaves the corporate fold and consults or works for a small startup firm. Total investment on part of the student is probably several thousand dollars as opposed to several hundred thousand..

- Jamie Ross MIT '79

-- Jamie Ross, February 1, 1999

here are a few random points;

1) the discussion concerning the motivational level of paying students versus "free ride" students is interesting, but I don't think you can come to a conclusion without looking at external factors. one is the effect of the inherently hostile university environment; I suspect that the "free riders", particularly those on scholarships, have gotten used to good treatment by the various schools up to college. the pay-as-you-go crowd, not having been accorded any respect during middle and high school, may be better prepared emotionally for the slings and arrows of outrageous academia. another factor is the end result of those hard years; for Europeans in particular, I have read that post-graduate success has more to do with socio-economic status than academic performance, so why kill yourself studying?

2) I find it increasingly ironic that, as the American economy becomes faster-paced and more competitive, that 17-year-olds are expected to have their future mapped out, and have the self-discipline and motivation to pursue that future with all guns blazing (metaphors mixed while-u-wait!).

3) the Utopians would like everything to be merit-based, while the Free-Marketeers would like competition to provide efficiency. both mean well, and both will be disappointed. the problem is a complex one related to scale. if less expensive schools provided the same education, and employers had the ability to accurately gauge future value of prospective employees, then the wise college freshman would choose the cheaper school. real life doesn't work that way. large organizations have a management structure (thus implementing the Peter Principle) and usually a dedicated Human Resources department (a set of folks for whom lobotomies would be redundant). both groups of people are often willing to pay a dollar premium for the prestige degree. also, work assignments and advancement opportunities are more likely available to the best pedigree. so, there are incentives in the U.S. for students to pay the massive premium charged by MIT. and if they're willing to pay, any university _will_ charge it. universities are about money, after all.

no matter what is done, I am not sure that there is a solution to this problem, unless you find a way to address the external issues. its sort of a symptom of greater societal ills. there are trainloads of related rants which partly feed into this issue, but I'll sign off for now.

for the prestige

-- Wilfred of Ivanhoe, February 11, 1999

As I read Philip's argument, it struck me how much his vision of a tuition free school matched the reality at Cooper Union. I know that the reference is redundant, since it's been previously mentioned, but the Cooper is really unique. The school isn't perfect, but it doesn't force students to waste time and effort running some sort of financial gauntlet before granting them an affordable education.

Oh, by the way, Cooper also offers free education in the fields of art and architecture. It's not just an engineering school.

-- Frank Wortner, March 18, 1999

Back in the 1950s and 60s, many Americans did get a free education thanks to the GI bill, and there were even more tuition-free schools than there are today. Student loans were unheard of. Back then, the view was that society is investing in you to do something important that will benefit everybody. Today, the view is that since you are the main beneficiary of your education, why shouldn't you pay for it? When we send that message to students, I don't think we can blame them for pursuing high pay over fulfillment and public service.

It's hard for me to say what parents should pay since mine were asked and able to pay very little, but burdening 21 year olds with thousands of dollars in debt doesn't seem like the best start MIT could give to young careers.

I think the real question is who pays for education and what does that payment represent? Is it the older generation investing in the younger generation, or is each generation on its own? Is it the whole society making the investment in its future, or does it just work one family at a time? Whose interests is MIT supposed to be serving and how are they best served?

-- Delete Me, March 27, 1999

your responses inspired me to take a look at our academia over the last two centuries.

two hundred years ago we were an agrarian economy. University was for the well born and based on the English model.

one hundred years ago we were an industrial economy. University was for the well born and based on the German model(as it is today).

fifty years ago we were a scientific economy. in response to the communist challenge we became more egalitarian. University was for everyone.

today we are an information economy. in response to the communist collapse we reverted to earlier times. University was for the well born(and its now necessary hirelings).

in a class system the price of admission/tuition is necessarily high. if the upper echelons of government/academia/corporations form this class,what can we expect in the future? more consolidation, more monopoly, less free distribution of information, less change.

the Web is new and upstart, it will be the first to feel the pinch. you'll still be able to distribute flyers on the street corners as you did before but - you'll see more server based solutions(no more just looking at View Source to see how it's done), a more snazzy and expensive(in time and money, talent and knowledge) look to discourage entry, and more proprietary solutions discouraging mass communication(till these are erased by consolidation).

reading this over, i find it inexorably and depressingly negative. still, there's always the possiblility of a "beau geste", a beautiful gesture, even if it doesn't inspire others to slack their fees. and also, what the hell, i might be wrong.



-- david sugarman, April 10, 1999

I think it's noteworthy to mention that what's being proposed here is not free education. It is education being paid for by the companies that will benefit from that education a few years down the road.

I can see that students could be less motivated if it's something they don't have to pay for but the trick there is to admit students that want to learn and want to succeed and to get rid of the students that obviously have no interest in it.

I find, in my life, that the biggest obstruction to me pursuing my ideas is money. If we can remove that obstruction and attract students with great ideas from all financial backgrounds we can put out better quality graduates which in turn gives the educational institution a better name and attracts more investors.

-- David Walker, April 12, 1999

I beleive your ideas are excellent. I am about to become an undergraduate at NJIT where I will be studying computer technology. I've been told by several people that I should look into MIT, that I could get loans and grants since I've been in the military for four years. I've thought about it but came to the decision that I would much rather not get into the debt(whether I qualify or not is a different story). I also know a few other people that would love to attend MIT, and that are highly qualified to attend, but just can not afford it. I'm sure that society would benifit by affording the finacially average the ability to attend MIT.
I don't know that the price/education ratio is worth it at present. Much undergraduate learning is done on your own, or in groups of peers working on projects. I wonder if $100,000+ for guided study is worth it? I've taught myself web database programming in the past few years while I've been in the military. I'm not an expert in the field, and I'm sure I could learn a lot from an experienced programmer, but I don't feel I would be willing to pay $100,000+ for this experience.
I wish you the best of luck in your cause, and would be willing to help in any way I can. Thank You.

-- Stephen Walker, April 17, 1999
I just wondered how come tuition can cost $100,000 a year and yet there are no RDBMS servers. Surely machines cost very little and (some) RDBMS cost nothing. In Britain (where I live) some universities have started thinking about charging tuition. At the moment all fees are paid by the govt from tax. The charge they're thinking of is about $1500 a year and half the country is outraged.

Some bright spark in the National Union of Students calculated the actual cost of some popular courses and got together a poster campaign with the strapline "is your degree worth #20,000 to you?" Of course we were supposed to say 'hell no, down with tuition fees'. I thought 'if it's not worth that to you should it be worth it to me as a taxpayer?'

I haven't read to the end of the article yet so i don't know if Phil has an idea for a sustainable fee-free MIT, but extremely wealthy lecturers handing back the fees is a great anarchic strike. In Britain some lecturers don't earn $20,000 a year. But that's in arts/humanities.

-- A We, April 20, 1999

Excellent argument. Allow me to relate my current situation; I think it will serve as a useful corollary to the above.

I am an MIT freshman who is currently faced with a rather disturbing dilemma. I have the opportunity of taking a research position at the Media Lab, which would provide me a fairly large degree of freedom as well as combining two areas of computer science which I have a great deal of interest in.

Competing with this offer is a position at a commercial software company, offering somewhat less desirable circumstances from an intellectual perspective. Based simply on the merits of the work involved, I would most likely decide on the Media Lab. The commercial software company, however, has offered me a full five times the maximum salary the Media Lab is allowed to pay me, not including overtime and other material benefits. (The Media Lab is only allowed to pay undergrads for 40 hours/week of work. As anyone in computer science knows, this is a ridiculously light workload for a developer).

Unfortunately, I have a bill for $16000 arriving this Fall, followed by another in the Spring.
...
I am certain I'm not the only undergraduate faced with such a difficult decision. In fact, I'm certain I'm not the only undergraduate who would choose the research position were they not faced with an enormous amount of debt. MIT is built on people Just Like Me in that respect. In fact, that's at least part of the reason why they wanted us in the first place. If research grants are indeed such a large portion of MIT's income, then perhaps encouraging more undergrads to do research at MIT would be somewhat beneficial to The Institvte financially, to say nothing of its reputation as an intellectual institution.

Will I stay at MIT for the remainder of my undergrad career?

Probably.
Will I be as beneficial to MIT as I could be were I not burdened with the prospect of a debt larger than the lifetime incomes of 75% of the world's population?
Probably not.


-- Aaron Bornstein, April 23, 1999
Ok, I've been writing a term-long paper about Tuition at MIT for 17.241 [Introduction to the American Political Process]. I've analyzed where the costs of tuition go, the fact that tuition alone could only pay 14% of mit's operating costs, trends in tuition increase, the Ivy Overlap cartel, the process by which tuition is decided at mit, and a host of other issues.

The administrators I've talked to firmly believe (or, have sufficiently deluded themselves) that the process of Overlap -- the standardization of financial aid given to each student -- was in the correct interests of the students. The fact that finaid is need-blind means that especially desirable students don't get obscene amounts of cash... cash that could better be used to help truly needy students.

Also, your discussion hasn't mentioned the amount of financial aid that an average mit student gets; only 10%-20% pay the full cost of tuition out of pocket.

For the thesis of my final paper, I'm arguing that, if mit were so inclined, they could offer tuition-free education to their undergraduate students. And then I'm arguing why this will never happen. Other potentially disasterous side-effects include: decrease in student influence over the adminstration (not that they have much of that to begin with), a drastic increase in the number of applicants, and the effect of "people that won't ever leave mit" (which could be restricted by only making the first four years free).

-- Tresi Arvizo, May 7, 1999

How about: cut tuition in half. Pass along tuition costs to the end-user which, in a sense, is not the student but the corporation that ultimately hires her upon graduation.

Ie., make MIT a headhunter.

MIT and other top schools could collude in a positive way (instead of on tuition and financial aid) -- charging commissions to employers. Students still can work for whomever they choose upon graduation, but they pay half tuition in exchange for agreeing to "register" their jobs, allowing MIT to charge its commission.

There would be a number of loopholes to close, but do-able, I think. For example, any student caught violating the terms of the agreement would immediately be presented for a bill of the entire four-year cost of schooling. Any company making an end-run on the process would be suspended from hiring MIT grads -- any future hires would be immediately subjected to the present-student-will-full-bill treatment.

Let's say MIT charges a commission over the first 3 years -- 12%, 10%, 8%. So Joe works for Sun for 3 years out of college -- earns $200K in toto. MIT gets reimbursed $60,000.

You get the drift. Companies already pay huge headhunter fees. Why not tap into that? They write off those expenses anyway. And it scales financial aid not exclusively to how much your parents had, but to how much you make down the road.

-- michael goldstein, July 11, 1999

Firstly let me state I'm not here to get anyone to pity me. I am currently living in Denmark, and have been here 6 months and am here becuase my father was offered a tenured position at a university here. I have moved (not traveled as most people think, I am a modern day nomad, I move to survive, don't have time to enjoy the sights, just time to try and fit into the new system, which has never happened to this day, once an alien, always an alien) from one country to another since a child (3 years in England, 6 years in Singapore, 1 year in the U.S.A, 6 months in Denmark list goes on.) I am now "stuck" in Denmark, where it will take me at least 10 years to complete a undergrad Computer Science degree (it's very hard to explain, but simply put the Danish system is very open to non Danish/EU citizens). The resources available here are also very limited (and bloody expensive, income tax ranges from 45-60%, all goods and services have a tax on them ranging from 25%-250%, computer goods for example cost 150%-250% more than what one would pay in U.S.A, I can't even afford to buy a cycle, let alone a new computer to replace my older system). All this said, I plan to go to the U.S.A. and study, the resources are available there, there is a very large and healthy computer/geek community in which I would feel at home with. There are many more reasons as to why I chose the U.S.A., but there is one main problem in studying in the U.S.A, the costs. I am considered an international student, which means I must pay a LOT more money than U.S. citizens. I would love to go and study at M.I.T. My father had a reseach position at M.I.T. and I got a chance to go around and get a feel for the environment and I would love to be part of it. I have however not put M.I.T. on my the list of possible universities I might attend, one reason being that I won't pass their entrance requirements (I am no straight A, Albert Einstein), and second I would never be able to afford the costs. I have 2 universities in mind at current, both in MA, one being public, one being privte, I am going to with-hold their names. I am more inclined on attending the private univeristy, as it seems to have better resources and a better computer science department. My cost calculations for a 5 year undergrad Computer Science course are in total close to US$200,000. They don't charge as much as say Harvard or M.I.T. would, but that is still a LOT of money. The only way I will be able to attend this university is if I obtain a loan from a U.S., WITH a U.S. citizen co-signer, how I will find a U.S. Citizec co-signer, I have no clue. That is just one of the problems I am going to face, it will leave me in debt for the next 20-25 years of my life, I have many other things to worry about, getting past my father, who shows no interest in my future or future goals and will not help with anything, getting a student visa and proving I have the money to support myself for the 5 years in the U.S. and there are many more problems. I am 20 years old, and I have big plans on what I want to do. I have a GREAT deal of interest in computers and computer technology, I can't even begin to explain how important it all is to me, my life depends on it, it's the only thing I'm good at, and actually enjoy. What I really want to say is that I very much admire what you (Philip Greenspun) are doing, I must admit it seems like and impossible task, but I wish you the best with it, and I would like to add, that if I ever have the facility to help you out, I will do so to whatever extent I can, that is if, I ever make it. Truthfully, it doesn't seem like I will, I will probably stuck in Denmark for the rest of my life delivering newspapers for 6-8 hours a day (my current job, the only job I can get here, because I am non Danish/EU). I would like to end this message by saying thank you to you Mr. Greenspun, even though your goal does not benefit me directly in any way, the general gist of your goal is to help people like me, and for that, I thank you.

SeVeN

P.S. Please pardon any grammar/spelling mistakes, it's 5:30AM in the morning, I am tired, and I don't have time to check my message, as I have to leave for my paper rounds now.

-- Shoaib Saleemi, July 11, 1999

It's amazing that an institution like MIT and other Ivy League universities charge an individual 1/4 million dollars for an education. While at the same time declare that they feel they are contributing because they 'offer' affordable schooling.

For those who have never had to prostrate themselves in front of university administration; let me tell you; its demeaning. They request information about you, your parents (so they too can feel shamed), any other family members whom may be with-in a call or two. They dont give the money; they only drive home the fact that you cant afford their schooling.

After they have had their way with you then they decide what you can and can not afford. This in itself is a higher education. It teaches you, those who do not drive new cars or wear expensive jewelry, are only welcome if the administration allows it.

It sends out a clear and strong message: You are welcome shown you can afford it.

I did all this for $1700.00 Canadian. I dont think I could image what $250,000.00 US would feel like.

Keep up the good work. You may not change the American education institute, but you could make a significant impact on the Canadian educational system.

-- Mike Glover, August 9, 1999

Philip, I've been thinking about your argument since I first saw the news of your gesture last year (okay, I started thinking about it after I stopped cursing myself for not attending your lecture :).

My concern with replacing tuition dollars with commercial or otherwise private dollars is that it may promote an even more intense level of careerism and less breadth and exploration among our undergraduates.

Interacting with undergraduates in various engineering programs at MIT, I've already been dismayed at the generally increasing career focus of freshmen and sophomores. Some may consider it increased market saavy, but I think it's sad to find students who never explore or consider fields other than the one they come in believing holds the best monetary return. There are still lots of neat people who come to MIT, but I think many have noticed the shift in the outlook of many within our incoming class.

Even worse could be the impact on electives in the humanities. I'd hate to see Playwrighting (which, by the way, taught me more about understanding and working with people than any other class at MIT) replaced with Business English and Communciations.

What chance does MIT really have of resisting commercial forces? MIT already tends to follow the current vogues of the commercial world in several areas, rather than setting the pace. In graduate work, you can already see the not-so-subtle differences between grant-funded and commercial contract research.

I guess the earlier question should be whether private funders would try to change MIT curriculum or not. I think it's likely, it's natural to want some control over your investment, even when investing in an engineer-factory like MIT. Given the popularity of the field, wouldn't the first reasonable thing to do be to hire some management consultants to review the undergraduate curricula? What might the findings be and what might the companies ask MIT to do in return for their dollars?

I'm exaggerating and oversimplying to illustrate a point, but I think it's an important consideration in making a place like MIT tuition-free. I chose materials science after starting in computer science because I found it more difficult, frustrating, and anti-intuitive, hence interesting and challenging, for me at the time (you can't pay for that kind of masochism)...I would never have done that with a capitalistic career bent, especially since CS/EE salaries look like medical doctor salaries to us poor groveling physical scientists. Not that our curricula are perfect, but I think the pressure to turn out "the kind of engineers that industry wants" is already large and corrupting enough as it stands.

In any case, I'd be interested in any further discussion of whether people believe the influences I describe would really occur and whether they could be thwarted in the tuition-free MIT nirvana that Philip proposes.

-- Andrew Kim, August 14, 1999

When I graduated from high school, I was accepted at MIT as well as several other schools. But the tuition prices were just inconceivable to us, as there was no real "family wealth". Despite the fact that there was "needs based financial aid", It came short of the costs by something like twenty thousand dollars per year, not including room and board. To me, that was utterly impossible. That was more than anyone I knew personally at that time (I lived in rural Kansas) MADE in a year. I didn't go to MIT. I don't know what my life would have been like if I had, but I'm doing okay with a degree from a less well-known school.

-- Ray Dillinger, August 16, 1999
Ray,

What you would have gotten at a "top tier" school is the following:

1) Instant Credit! Private Loans can cover any amount of tuition you need. No worries. (Slightly higher rates than the government ones, of course, but still better than a platinum card...)

2) Excellent placement programs. Your academic credibility will allow you, if you choose, to repay your tuition loans in a reasonable amount of time. (That is, if you want to go into finance, or a technical field.)

3) A set of wealthy friends and connections, places to stay all over the world, and generally an inability to return to Kansas. (Most likely.)

For the majority of undergraduate institutions, the "quality" of education seems to be not so different. For example, I took classes at the University of Minnesota for a number of years, and finally went to Brown for my undergraduate degree. The differences I could tell were largely in the attitudes, and socio-economic classes of the students.

I left Brown with $50,000 in debt, and a consulting job. If I'd stuck it out, I would have paid off my loan in two to three years, provided I stayed frugal. As it is, I quit my job, and am starting my own company. Gotta love that debt.

In short, for undergraduate degrees, you buy a name. Anyone who thinks differently is not being honest with themselves.

-- Peter Vessenes, August 16, 1999

Peter,

Your comments are quite true about what you get from a top tier school, (loans, academic credibility, connections) but I object that the quality is not significantly better ... at least at MIT. I know some of my friends from MIT went to graduate schools that were not top rated. They said the classes asked fill in the blank questions and never asked you to think for yourself. I have a BS in chemistry from MIT, and though I never went into chemistry, the education I received at MIT still is useful. Many professors there expected you to think outside of the box, to take what you learned and go a step farther on your own. It is a useful skill no matter what you end up doing.

Is MIT too expensive? It was definately a struggle for my parents when they put me through. There was even a two year period when both my brother and I were there. MIT never gave us a dime in financial aid. We barely missed their cutoff. My parents took out lots of loans. They thought the second worst thing in the world a parent could do is start their kids off in their adult life weighed down with massive loans, but they couldn't have done it without help from student loans as well as loans they took out in their names. (The first worst thing a parent could do is not give their kids the best education in the world.)

But I also knew many people there whose parents made barely anything and they still went there. I even knew one whose parents refused to pay a cent for their kids education so he got a job and payed for it himself. So anyone can pay for it if they are resourceful and willing to sacrifice a lot (or their parents are willing to sacrifice a lot).

On the flip side it really puts the kids and parents in a bind to pay so much. Many kids stay up all hours of the night working to help pay. This sure doesn't teach them much about quantum mechanics or object oriented programming ... maybe a bit about the realities of life. I applaud your idealism and hope you succeed, but I will bet my money on the powers that be. (Then I'll give them that money and more when my kids are a few years older.)

Daphne

-- daphne gould, August 18, 1999

I did not graduate from MIT, I never went there, I went to the University of Arkansas. A friend of mine did go to MIT, but did not graduate. I did not ask him whether or not it was because of tuition difficulties (actually I don't dare). My guess is that it could have been. How does the quote go? "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." and the corollary to that, "come with me and I will make you fishers of men..." Free public school education is the base for the growth of literacy, innovation, and the elevation of the lowest common denominator of a democratic society. It is free because the fund-raising mechanisms required to finance it are located within the societal structure of the State (of Arkansas and it's subsidiary counties and municipalities ) Translate that statement into the words "Property Taxes". The State of Texas has, instead gone to the Lottery. Who has more money for "education"?... Texas. Who provides the funding? ... anybody with a dollar to waste/spend on the chance, no matter how slim, to get rich. Here is a concept with a basis in fact for you, Phil & your loyal companion, Alex... Start the "MIT LOTTERY" as a web service to fund the tuition costs... Of course you will have to do some serious legal sidestepping to avoid the State Gambling Commission. Of course, as a fledgeling graphic designer / webmaster / information architect, I would seriously enjoy a fat consulting fee from your efforts. (grin) By the way, Thanks for publishing your entire book, Phil & Alex's Guide To Web Publishing, online. I read the whole darn thing today, and can no longer think. (info overload?) However, as I digest the content, I will be back to visit your sites. I believe you have begun the process of teaching me "how to fish". Good Luck!

-- David Ragsdale, August 21, 1999
I have found that in many areas of life, you do *not* get what you pay for. Tuition at MIT vs. Tuition at "lesser" institution is a prime example.

For example, I have noticed over the years that the more a school charges its students, the more it feels justified in abusing them. This is certainly not the way hotel chains or other for-profit businesses work! I was often appalled at how my friends at Princeton University were treated by their administration. When you consider how much more their education was costing them than mine cost me, it was doubly appalling. But when so many people who want to go to a school like MIT badly enough, the school can get away with charging whatever it wants and treating students however it wants.

The irony is that most of these people are not only putting up with abuse but they aren't getting very much for their money. I happen to work with a group of people who all went to CMU and paid through the nose for the priviledge. Personally, I went to a no-name private college in the Midwest on full scholarship where I got a degree in some made-up discipline. I am now a Software Engineer just like them. I make as much money as they do and I have (through luck) better stock options. I'm doing just as well in my career as the brightest of them as well. Unlike them, I actually enjoyed my college years and got a lot out of them. Just like Ms. Daphne, who thinks her education is so much better because of where she got it, I also was taught to think rigorously, write eloquently and do research. (Most colleges claim to do this, btw, and most graduates claim they learned how to do this. But that's another topic altogether.)

So what exactly did my co-workers *get* for their money and their time? Beats me! They ended up with way more debt than I did, enjoyed their time in school much less and are doing no better in their career. This does not seem like a good investment to me.

In the end, people who have native intelligence, work hard and have a drive to create will be able to carve out a successful life for themselves. Perhaps people without these qualities actually need to go to a school with a certain cachet, but I am skeptical that it even works for them. In the long run, what school a person goes to for 4-10 years out of their 80-100 years of life is such a small part of the equation of what makes a person successful.

-- Marie L. Hughes, September 4, 1999

This is not central to your argument, but it turns out that a substantial proportion of law school graduates do not in fact practice law. They do, however, use their legal training to make money. But I can't point to figures.

-- Stavros Macrakis, September 25, 1999
There is another method of funding a free education at MIT that has not been discussed, but which I have run across a couple of times. The basic idea is that any MIT alumni that starts a company must give some small percentage of the initial stock to MIT. This is a contract that students agree to before they start their studies. If I recall correctly, the study that I read claimed that, based on historical data of actual companies, this percentage was something like 1% or not much more. Because the stock is given at the founding, not at the point of an IPO, its value at the time of giving is very small, making it "easier" to give. If a company does not do well or goes belly up then the stock is indeed worthless. If, however, enough companies do well (and historically they do) then in time MIT makes enough money to train the next generation of entrepeneurs.

One can interpret this as MIT investing in its own students. Also, since MIT owns the money generating investment, MIT retains control over its curriculum, which alleviates the fears some have expressed that if companies directly fund the education then they will dictate the curriculum. Based on MIT's success up to this point, there would be no need to overly "commercialize" the curriculum, because it (the curriculum) is already doing just fine.

-- Earl Waldin, October 6, 1999

It seems students have very little choice but to bankrupt themselves or their parents should they want an education from a top-flight university. I don't think this is in the best interests of any of us.

By taking on huge loans, students may be forced to delay buying a home or marrying and having children. Parents who pay for their children's education may have to choose between their children's future and their own retirement. A graduate of a lesser-known university may have as much knowledge as an MIT graduate, but she's not going to be given the same opportunities. [Old joke: what's the only question the average employer asks a female University of Calgary engineering graduate applying for work? "What's your typing speed, dearie?"]

Some of your correspondents claim that students don't value an education they don't pay for. I don't think your correspondents go far enough.

Among my classmates, those who paid their own way completely were more likely to treasure their university education. The students least likely to care about their education weren't the natives or seniors who got free tuition, though; they were the young, just-out-of-high-school students whose parents paid for it all. They actually thought their parents and the world owed them a university education simply because their family was wealthy. I used to shake my head in amazement at the immense sense of entitlement these children -- and they were still children, university or not -- seemed to have. At the same time, though, I felt sorry for them, knowing that when they graduated they'd have a terrible time of it. From what you say, though, soon these students will be the only ones able to afford to attend MIT. What a waste.

So what's the solution? Personally, I think universities should force students to pay their own way (after reducing tuition to a reasonable rate so students aren't choked by debt), either through scholarships, employment, or loans. Give preference to students who have either worked or volunteered full-time for at least a year between high school and university. (If a year working at Blockbuster or a homeless shelter isn't motivation to do well at university, what is?) Kick the fraternities and sororities OUT; old boys' and girls' clubs only increase the sense of entitlement some students have. Don't force students to live on campus; let them learn how to pay rent, etc. on their own.

In other words, expect university students to be adults.

-- Charlene Vickers, November 30, 1999

Phil,

After living in Europe for about 3 years (2 in Spain and 1 in England) I can say that I have experienced both educational systems. During my studies in the states I paid $20,000 a year for undergraduate school. Luckily I was able to do my Junior Year in England at Oxford on scholarship. Before arriving to Europe I was not aware of the "free" educational system but soon realized that my "scholarship" that in the states would be worth about $25,000 would not have the same monetary value in England since students don't pay to study per say. Education is not completely free as one must buy books, housing, entertainment but still compared to the American system it's practically free. I remember when in England the Oxford University student Union complained about a $100 raise in student fees and I actually found this to be quite amusing since I was accustomed to pay $20,000 a year to study. I am now applying for 2-year masters program in Barcelona that will cost the equivalent of $1500 a year. I can't even fathom the dollar amount in America for the same program. Lastly, a point was brought up by the other gentleman who also studied at Oxford about the seriousness of the American student versus the European. I can frankly say that this truly depends on the student. I have many European friends that take their studies quite seriously. On a more macro scale to this topic, one of the main differences between American and European thought is the following:

In America (USA) Education and Health is a PRIVILEGE whereabouts in Europe it is a RIGHT. I am in favor of the latter but in the states the majority still has the mindset that the former functions more effectively. This is one of the reasons that I have decided to move back to Europe and settle there.

-- George McGehrin, December 3, 1999

Phil for MIT president!!

-- Tony Chao, January 3, 2000
At least the libraries of our country are free. With a slightly inflated light bill and less hours of sleep, I dare say anybody in this land should be able to learn whatever they want. And with the start of on-line community Universites, as I see Phil's sites as a pioneering proto-type, the sky is the potential limit. Getting a free MIT quality education can be possible in the near web future.

-- Mark Barkasy, January 9, 2000
Phillip argues "If we [MIT] were charging $1 million/student, would any rich person give us money? Do rich people make donations to United Airlines?" implying that rich people mostly donate to institutions that really need it. I don't believe that is what motivates them. Rather, it is the chance to meet other donors - social climbing. Can it be true that MIT and Harvard are more in need of still larger endowments than dozens of good but unknown schools? Giving to the famous school returns more in social standing, so that is where the money goes.

On the subject of totally free tuition, that would have ruined me. I vividly recall signing on the dotted line for a student loan. And paying for college taught me not to fear debt, something poor people often do. I became a serious student first to avoid wasting the money, later to learn something. But I do agree that tuition must be kept reasonably low. I graduated with only $10,000 in debt to Stevens Institute of Technology (class of 1980) and might never have even applied to a college if the cost was going to be much higher.

Stevens was actually free until the early '70s, but they didn't talk much about that. Perhaps someone knows why they gave it up?

-- Robert Hahl, January 13, 2000

Instead of a tuition free MIT, we should close all the "schools" of engineering and technics, and quit treating them as philosophical cultures. Any student of mechanics should be encouraged to see the poetry of force diagrams, any student of thermodynamics should be encouraged to explore the artistry of phase plane portraits. Let the masters be free to evaluate and choose their own apprentices. Let the journeymen maintain guild integrity. We cannot go backwards to a medieval society, but we can go forward to a healthier one, based on a more humble approach to the role of technics and a more exhalted approach to the human spirit.

There is a deep pathology in the institution of higher education in America which took root in the twentieth century. Phillip Greenspun stands out as a remarkable critic speaking from within the context of higher education, but the real problem is much deeper than the economic infrastructure of tuition.

Our society functions for the benefit of a few people at the expense of the many. Whatever the rationalization is, it amounts to a form of cannibalism or human sacrafice disguised as systems theory. Ocatvio Paz, who taught briefly at Harvard, I believe, deconstructs this peculiar American and Puritanical system of exploitation in his essays.

Each human being deserves the opportunity to forgo socialization of instinct (ass kissing and stealing credit)in favor of vitality. There are no prophets of this model of large scale social organization, because the only voices we hear are completely invested in the fundamental illusion of society-as-method, or society-as-technic. This cohort, advocates and critics alike, are united in their fear of unsocialized instinct. They think that drug usage, crime, and "lack of ambition" are the result of unsocialized instinct, while high SAT scores, obsessive responsiveness to authority and deeply compartmentalized psyches with low ego strength are the marks of a valuable citizen. What can you say to that?

Society is a medium, not a method or a value. It is the energy field in which equilibriums and disequilibriums occur, it is not the outcome of the system or the measure of the system fitness.

The instrumental view of society asks: "what is expressed or transmitted in the medium?". Someone who has experienced love doesn't need to ask that question. A parent understands society as a medium or channel for carrying love. A lover understands it. An engineer versed in Rumi's poetry can understand it.

How does this apply to the question of tuition and the dialog above? You must strip the false dichotomies of cost and profit away from the setting, and see the children who love their world, the parents who love their children, the teachers who love their subjects, the society which loves its industries, as the elements of a composition which can be brought into harmony or discord, but cannot be designed for more efficient cost management of education.

There is great discord in higher education. Its basic form was designed to produce clergymen. Engineering and art both benefit from the apprenticeship system, and suffer when pressed into the model of an elite priesthood. There is a rowdyness and profanity in the best of art and engineering that cannot be contained within the denatured sanctuaries of the priests.

The discord in higher education simulates the psychic dissociation of the schizophrenic, who does not have consistent access to his own immediate surroundings as a frame of value reference, but shuttles between contradictory value systems. Learning and achievement are in contradiction to profit taking. Schools that try to reconcile this contradiction begin to evince "crazy" behavior.

The schizophrenic that is supported by his family and immediate neighbors in his delusions becomes the choreographer of second and third order psychoses that are generated in order to adapt to his needs. This is where we are currently in discussion of higher education in this country. We don't even know what an education is anymore. The tenets of priesthood, with its patent abdication from vitality, are so thoroughly insinuated into the postures and masks of the members of the debate, that they can't even separate their own official personae from their intimate realities.

The real problem that needs to be addressed is a lack of a vision of community that understands where value is created and where it is invested to maintain human quality. The fact that anyone would try to profit from nurturing a child in any form, however sophistical the model, is sufficient condemnation of the culture from which such a model emerges.

In econometrics or input/output modelling, children are cost centers: transportation and education and shelter are cost centers, or sinks, not sources. Proposing models to exploit mariginal or incremental value discrepencies in processes that are in large costs, is a form of cannibalism to a lesser or greater degree. It amounts to charging secretaries to have their supplies delivered from the loading dock: arguing that the supplies don't have any value to the secretaries on the loading dock, therefore the secretaries should pay personally to have them delivered to their desks.

It isn't more profound than that.

I applaud Greenspun's effort to raise the discourse above the delusory platitudes of the status quo. I would truly celebrate raising the discourse all the way to the level of common sense and emotional honesty.



-- jeff beddow, January 20, 2000

This article is so ridiculous I dont even know why I bother to respond. But I'll keep it as short as possible.

1. Free education reduces the "loss due to failure" which everyone knows (cause its been proven repeatedly) reduces motivation.

2. Free education would make every aspiring engineer apply to MIT, and provide incentive to do anything (lies, falsification, etc included) to get admitted. This will reduce the quality of the incoming class and increase admission uncertainity and politics.

3. Face it, you dont get something for nothing. If you dont think the payback isnt worth it, go to some lower cost college. There are plenty which provide a good education.

4. Hardly anyone comes out with a "$100,000 loan." Enough financial aid, summer job opportunities and (relatively) high paying part-time campus jobs are available. If you want to be fair to students, propose that students be paid at par with what corporations would pay students for similar work (typically, twice the campus pay). This puts more pressure on profs to raise funds for their research etc and does create a further set of problematic dynamics (which is why I wouldnt recommend this) but it makes more sense than free education.

I could go on and on. As for engineers, I can think of atleast 40-50 smart, hardworking, creative ones who at 25-28 years old were worth over $10-15 Million because of startups, inventions etc. And besides, you recover the cost of a 4 year education (that is if you even paid full tuition..only about 10% of MIT students do, I believe) in about 2 years of work.

Certain economic concepts must be kept in mind while making decisions (no, I am not a fan of economics), else while being idealistic, we are also being foolish and setting up for failure.

Treat the education as a cost and it certainly is high. Treat it as an invetment in your own future (which will pay out over the next 70 years), and even $100,000 is pretty damn reasonable.

I hope you are only half-serious (or less) in making this arguement.

- Manas Ratha

-- Manas Ratha, January 22, 2000

Well...there's one simple answer to this problem....DON'T GO TO MIT! Or Harvard, or Yale, or Swarthmore, etc. Did you know that 80 percent of the students of the US go to public colleges? And of those who go to privates, only a small fraction go to what can be deemed as a "prestigous school". Yes, I know that there's not the aura of prestige when going to State U. than Columbia, but it's not like you won't be able to find a job, especially this day in age. There's absolutely no shame in it. In fact, many states have state schools which can be considered as prestigious as their elite private counterparts (SUNY Binghamton in New York....Univ of Virginia....UNC-Chapel Hill in North Carolina...etc.). In fact, the education system in many publics exceeds that of the privates any day! If you look at the mean earning statistics for private/public school graduates, I think that they're tainted quite a bit because many of the people in the privates...a small but significant portion...are from very wealthy families who will automatically get 100K+ jobs at graduation, which will skew the whole thing up.

I just can't stand listening to students/parents who whine about the cost of sending their kids to a private school. If you have such a problem with it...then don't send them! Who's forcing you? If the kid **really** wants to go to Harvard, then tell them that you will pay as much as you would send them to a public, and no more. Take out loans for the rest. And that's that. The parents won't have to struggle too much, and the kids will either graduate with little or no debt, or they will get forced to resign to the debt from a private school.....but remember....that's their choice!!!

-- Mike York, January 30, 2000

Odd that I should bump into this while looking at all the useful photography info, but it's a subject that I'm deeply interested in.

My parents could never afford to send me to a college. Literally, they didn't have a thousand dollars, much less ten, twenty or a hundred.

I had things that I deeply wanted to learn, courses and subjects that piqued my interest, and I really wanted to go to a college or university. No such luck. About six years or so before I left my parents' house, I had picked up a few things about computers and Unix. Having some definite proficiency in that area, I struck out on my own, and am now, at 19, making a comfortable six-digit salary as a Senior Unix sysadmin. My roommate has a Ph.D. in physics, is around 30, and is getting an entry level job as a programmer. Making less than I do now. He is, honestly, a very smart guy, very dedicated, and doesn't owe a cent in student loans or the like. But the point is, you don't need a college degree to succeed professionally. It's something you should /want/ to have. It's a dead shame that so many people think that it means something other than that an individual has continued their education, because those even less fortunate than I was, or those who are less aggressive, will see it as the only way to get out, get ahead ... and will be denied the possibility of it by monetary constraints.

It may be hard to believe (Though why, I don't know!), but not everyone can get financial aid, or even student loans. I tried! Hard! Not everyone has the possibility of getting into a college or university. Far from it, infact.

To conclude my long-winded and thusfar pointless ramble, I think that any sort of free college system would be a terrific opportunity. Just because someone has enough money to go through MIT, Harvard, stanford, etc., doesn't mean that they derive any benifit from it that they might reflect back to the world at large, and just because someone lacks the monetary resources to attend /any/ college doesn't mean that they're worthless and stupid. To be honest, I think that the situation is much the other way around. Are colleges and universities educating the wrong people?

-Kysh

-- Kysh Dragon, January 31, 2000

President PG died today. The President is most famouse for making education and medicare avaiable to all of Americas people.

Several comments suggest that the rise in intellectual and quality of life we have seen under president PG, with people actually doing what they want to do may return to what it was under the Reagen-Bush-Clinton era.

We have seen the growth of mothering, fathering and the way the elder interact in the society.

The major contribute to PG winning the presidental camaign was the ban on spending more than the allowed amount of money. The Repulicans and the Democrats was not capable of advertize to win.

The president was 82 the day he died, and it was his last day on job.

His mission in life has been to make education avaiable to all who wants it, and he succeeded.

-- Xyvind Dahle, March 16, 2000

The short version in case the links break: Michael Saylor, 35, CEO of MicroStrategy and multi billionaire, has donated $100 million "as a down payment toward creating an online university that he says will offer an Ivy League-quality education to anyone in the world--free."

Here4s the original Washinton Post article
also check out the highest rated comments to the related slashdot story.

-- Joerg Michael, March 16, 2000
I would be quite willing to save you some money and attend your lectures for $50.00 per hour ($60.00/hr if you quote Codd, and $70.00/hr if you refer to him as "The father of the relational database"). I have been teaching myself a bit of programming for the past year or two and have discovered an obvious (yet generally overlooked) truth. It seems that the time I spend reading about programming is considerably more instructive than the time I spend listening to others talk about it. Of course, time spent actually writing programs is far more productive than passively reading or listening. Yet, I somehow think that for the right price, a few classes at M.I.T. might be worthwhile.

-- Jim Snyder, March 20, 2000

I remember sitting in a 3.091 lecture (physical chemistry for freshmen) one day (years ago) and being bored out of my mind while some old professor droned on and on. Then I calculated how much per hour was coming out of my pocket for the priveledge of listening to this guy. I suddenly became alert.

I liked the previous comments about students respecting an education because they were committed to it financially. I agree with the idea of committment, but believe it can be of a different form.

Suggestion: could we make MIT tuition free and require some other type of commitment ... such as volunteer hours in non-profit organizations? I have been on the boards of several non-profits, assisting them with computer related projects for several years. My current employer hosts a second web site for a charity hospital for AIDS orphans in Kenya ... and I get to donate up to 5% of my/his time per month to working on the web site. (He gets a tax break, too.) It makes us, and our clients feel good. I'm sure this kind of option would make students feel good, as well as provide them with some real-world experience. There are lots of small organizations out there that could use enthusiastic, idealistic students on a regular basis.

The high schools down here in Maryland are already requiring a minimum number of community volunteer hours for their graduates. We could do it too.



-- Jerome Dausman, March 29, 2000
Free tuition is a great idea, but how does it really work in a public university context? At UW, the undergraduate educational cost is about $10,000 per year per full time student. The student, if they are paying their own way, pays a tuition of $3,008. Those with financial need, may receive financial aid (overly weighted to loans I might add) to cover their entire cost of attendance including tuition. This cost of attendance (housing, transportation, food, books and tuition) runs about $12,500 per academic year. But all, without question, receive a discount of $7,000. If they paid the full educational costs, the total cost of attendance would be $19,500. Of the educational costs, either the student or the state pays. Current trends have the burden of educational costs being shifted by the state from the state (a perfectly rational behavior if you care more for low taxes than you care about a well educated citizenry) to the student (i.e. tuition goes up faster than state contributions to the cost of education). Today, the state is subsidizing the cost of education to the turn of about $7,000. Why should Bill Gates' kids get this subsidy (or Steve Balmer's or Fill In The Blank Rockerfeller or Six Glass Tooting Chardonnay Charlie for that matter)? Beyond the question of who should pay, enrollment entitlements and the underlying "class warfare" issues, in an environment of declining support for higher education do we really have a choice to keep paying for those who can pay for themselves? For more see: http://depts.washington.edu/uwfuture/begin/0000.html

-- Phillip Hoffman, April 14, 2000
The purposes of schools like MIT are to provide high quality education for an exclusive group of students and to create knowledge (usually the results of research, inventions or discoveries) for the world. Exclusiveness is achieved, in part, through the low acceptance rate of student applicants and through the high sticker price. Exclusivity and expensiveness build the MIT brand, which then helps bring in the research funding and the top faculty, and the cycle continues. It would be bad to do something which would stop that creation of knowledge.

Eliminating tuition is fundamentally different from eliminating exclusiveness. It would be possible to build the MIT brand even further by saying that only the top students get in, but once they are accepted, it's free. That would be a really neat fund-raising campaign to the alumni. Endow tuition, not financial aid.

On the other hand, if MIT provides the educational product to a wide audience, the brand could lose its perceived value, independent of price. Perhaps a different tactic would be more successful: identify the material delivered over the web as research results, not an MIT degree.

Change can be good for top colleges. Just don't break the parts that are worth keeping.

-- Helen Anderson, April 21, 2000

I've read about half of the comments, and it seems that few realise the difference between an education and a diploma. For instance, the idea that publicly-funded education, at any level, benefits only the recipient of the education, is wrong if the education is something useful like engineering or literacy or music. If it's merely the ability to do what Bill Gates is good at, then by all means charge a fortune. Better yet, if someone shows high aptitude, lock him up.

A really good engineer (software or hardware), or a really good doctor, or a first class physicist or novelist or dramatist or teacher, does it for the joy of the subject. You need only pay them the respect they deserve, and enough money to live on and not be sneered at by their neighbours.

So educate them for free, and you get more out of it than you put in.

-- albert rogers, April 25, 2000

I wish everyone had the same vision as Philip has. But the reality of things at a state school are, well, everything but reality.

Here at South Dakota State, you can buy all the physical things you want. For instance, as of May 1, the bare minimum computer the state will even purchase is a PIII 600, 128 meg of RAM, 20 gig HD, and a 17" monitor. All you want to do is type in Word and Excel? Well, you now have a decent engineering workstation, whether you need it or not. Cost to taxpayers, $2000+ from Gateway 2000. Forget a old PII 300, like I have, which cost me $500 from a internet retailer, will do just a fine job.

The state bought 100 web cams for the cooperative extension service. Do you think the state needs a webcam in each cooperative office, when the only people who care are 20 somethings with fast internet connections, not SD farmers who spend 14 hours a day working -- the primary users of the CES? They've forgotten their audience, and their mission. Instead of hiring more county agents (which get paid peanuts), they've bought things.

Getting things is SO easy. Hiring people to support them is IMPOSSIBLE.

People are always left out of the funding. That goes for students. Tuition will never be free. People can't be standardized, ordered in bulk, stored at a warehouse and catalogued in a database. People can't be itemized, serialized, and processed. Hence, people are secondary to things in the eyes of bureaucrats.

College isn't about things, it's about learning. But when you live in a place that will spend millions on things, your learning suffers. You don't learn from things, you learn from people. If things were capable of teaching, we'd only go to the book store, spend our $350 on books and that would be it. Free tuition, no matter how feasable, would take the focus away from things. Bureaucrats can't control people. People are a recurring cost. They are a liability.

-- N. Hopper, May 2, 2000
Next year I will be beginning my undergraduate natural sciences course at Cambridge University, UK. Untill two years ago all higher education in Britain was free and students were given government grants to help cover their living costs during the course. This system has been changed now so that students are offered a loan of up to UKP 4,000 ($6,000) each year and will have to pay up to UKP 1000 ($1500) in tution fees each year. All of these are means tested.

When this was first announced there was a huge outcry from the public and since devolution the Scottish parliament has said that they will pay all of their students tution fees. The idea of having to pay $100,000 to attend a university of similar stature strikes me as being horrific. I would never have believed that a country which claims to offer an equal chance for everybody (i.e. the American Dream) could accept such a travesty as part of life.



-- Edward Rayne, May 17, 2000

I have an answer to Philip Hoffman's question of why we'd offer free tuition to Bill Gates's children. In a society sane enough to send me free to MIT, we'd be taxing Bill Gates more than an additional hundred thousand per annum.

Anybody with an income a thousand times what an honest farm labourer gets is paid more than he's worth. That means he's a thief.

-- Albert Rogers, July 31, 2000

I enjoyed your rambling, a person after my own heart. I would note however that you miss out on one of the joys of being in state/public educational institution, namely the intercollegiate athletics empire. Universities continue with the myth that players are really students and that somehow having a winning team is good for the institution. While winning basketball and/or football teams can often subsidize other athletic teams, they are still subsidized by the university budgets.

My thought for the day "Any school with a losing team can't be all bad, any school with a winning team is almost certainly crooked"

-- Donald Myers, December 12, 2000

After paying $100k to Stanford for my husband to study electrical engineering, the Army in all its wisdom assigned him to be a tanker. During his four-year service obligation he did not use his degree and now cannot work as an engineer. So instead he's applying to M.B.A. programs- including Sloan at MIT.

-- Claire Hazlett, February 11, 2001
There have been a few comments here that people who don't pay for their tuition fees (e.g. Europeans) generally are less motivated, lazy and don't respect their education. I hope that most people here can realise that this is a ridiculous sweeping statement and clearly cannot apply to everyone.

I'm currently studying at Cambridge University in the UK, and I probably pay less than 20% of what Americans do for an equivalent university such as Harvard or Stanford. Just because we haven't paid as much as students in the US does not mean that we don't deserve our education or take it seriously.

-- Adrian Hon, February 19, 2001

Like on many other issues there is a gulf between American and European views. Reading through the above comments the European stereoptype that some Americans know the price of everything and the value of nothing is reinforced,

My own experience of academia comes from seven years as a student at Cambridge, three and a half years in Japan, 6 months in France and a couple of months in the USA as a post-doc. This experience doesn't mean what I say isn't rubbish of course, but I hope I no longer have a purely British viewpoint.

When I started Cambridge not only was tuition free but I also received a (means-tested) grant from the government for living expenses. Far from students having to work during term time it is forbidden. Having a part time job can get you thrown out. This means that those who choose can devote themselves totally to their studies and the rest can easily combine study and a vibrant social life centred on hundreds of flourishing societies.

What makes this or any other education worthwhile? How do you value an education? By how much you paid or by what you learnt and how you developed?

In Britain there is only one private university (Buckingham) all the others are public. Buckingham caters solely for people who are too stupid to attend any other university but who have rich parents. In Britain an education you pay for is worth much less than one that is nearly free.

What stops students partying for years on end and doing no study? Some of them do and perhaps they wouldn't if they were paying themselves. However, Cambridge (and many of the others) have very strict academic standards. If you fail the end of year exams you have to leave. There are no retakes and you cannot repeat a year. The only exceptions are for medical reasons. Unsurprisingly nearly everyone works very hard before their exams and the dropout rate for a three year degree is only a few percent. The grade of the final degree is also very important for finding a job. How many professors at an American university can throw out their students for being lazy when they pay 25,000$ a year. (This problem is not unique to America and less prestigious universities in Britain face similar problems since their grant from the government will be cut if they fail students.) The solution to me seems obvious and it is not to charge students more money so that the rich can continue to be lazy. Instead it is to rigorously enforce academic standards. If professors are afraid to fail students because their students will then evaluate them badly or the department revenue will be cut this this will result in falling standards - the value of the education is reduced.

In Japan a very high percentage of its young people graduate from universities, yet its higher education system is intensely disliked. It is both expensive and worthless. Worthless because it does not provide a good education. Expensive because one must graduate to get a good job. Japanese students work incredibly hard to pass university entrance exams (known as examination hell), and upon matriculating spend the next four years trying to recover by getting drunk and sleeping through their classes safe in the knowledge that it is almost impossible to fail and that the reputation of their university will secure them a job. Rigorously enforcing academic stabndards could solve some of these problems. If students had to work to graduate it would no longer be necessary to have such tough entrance exams since failing students would be thrown out after the first year (like the French system). If it required work to graduate students would have a sense of achievement.

By having low academic standards everyone is cheated. Failing students are encouraged to waste their time at university when they would be better getting a job. Students studying hard feel they are cheated since students who do no work achieve the same degree. Professors become hypocrites betraying academic excellence.

Looking back at what I've written it is rather long and rambling (I'm better with equations than sentences) IMHO I think Philip's article was excellent and it would be a great step towards getting universities to focus on education rather than money.

Jim



-- Jim McElwaine, March 27, 2001

Philip,

Let me be the first to congratulate you on this (of all) page where you had called for a tuition-free MIT. Your dream (of the girl in Vietnam learning over the web from courses taught at MIT) seems to be close to becoming a reality.

Gen
MIT PR
NYTimes
Wired News


-- Gen Kanai, April 5, 2001

Tuition free is a great goal. Which has been accomplished by small schools like cooper union. Because we live in a capitalist country I do believe totally free would deprive students of some of the drive that is required to succeed in an academic environment.

I also think that what ever system is advocated should be usable at any university at any level. So here are some of my proposals.

1st Pay once for tuition. A token fee when you start school. Lets say $10,000. That could cover 32 classes which can be taken in the standard 8/year or an other combination. The catch is if your grades get below C level you are unenrolled from the school. If you want back in you need to be readmitted and you have to pay again.

2nd Room and Board shouldn't come into this equation. People will have to pay market rate for whatever city the school is in. High cost for housing is a national problem that needs to be addressed separately.

3rd all school expenses should be tax deductible to whomever pays it. This way students get more bang for the buck from their summer jobs or grants they get. And Others have an advantage of directly subsidizing the education of individuals instead of only getting a deduction by giving it to a "non profit" organization. (BTW I think this should be for all level of schools. Primary education need the most help.)

I think this would rock. Not only would this encourage extended families to stick together where I could help pay for my niece's school expenses. But I could also imagine a reverse ebay. You need a $10,000 tax deduction (credit whatever). You go to website where students can post their bills and profiles. You pay as many as you wish in exchange for a tax deduction. And you get the joy of helping out an individual which is the most rewarding kind of philanthropy.

-- Scott Wickham, April 6, 2001

A further complication to this issue is that MIT, above and beyond requiring students to pay $100,000 for a BS/BA, is that they require co-operation from the student's parents. I was an MIT student for a year and a half, before I had to drop out because I couldn't pay tuition. Now I am working, and still trying to figure out how to repay what I already owe. My family is on the verge of bankruptcy, but because my parents are more concerned with day-to-day and month-to-month finances than with things like filing taxes they can't afford to pay, or taking the time to collect information on exactly where what money they have is going. Because of this, I can't even qualify for whatever aid and grants *are* available: I am scrambling for money to send back to my parents, because paying for my first year at MIT caused my mother to default on a loan and lose her job, and throwing up my hands at the $16,000 that is collecting interest and skyrocketing late fees as I speak.

I seriously disagree with the anonymous comment that "The real answer is to reduce Uni courses from 3 or 4 years down to only one year" I have been working for 6 months now in desktop-computing support, and have learned a lot, but I will never get a job in an aerospace engineering firm starting from where I am now. The way that the engineering industry works requires that you start out knowing a lot--more than is possible to teach in one year of university classes.
In addition, by spending 3-4 years at a university, you also learn things from outside your chosen dicipline: you are required to take classes in art, or literature, or music. This exposure to other fields serves as a sort of agar: not for bacteria, but for innovative and creative ideas. Perhaps the most-intelligent and motivated of young people would still go to libraries and research into these things on their own, but the number of people of any age who are motvated and capable of mastering a dicipline from a reference book are few and far between. (I won't even go into the freedom-of-information issues that limit the accessibility of college curricula, and make independent learning truly impossible in some circumstances)
Limiting the scope of one's formal education can not be the right way to create a new generation of scientists and engineers. Instead, we need to make it possible for intelligent young people, regardless of their social status, personal lives, or other extenuating circumstances--to allow and encourage all who are able to pursue the education that will make them valuable members and contributors to society.

-- Kat Allen, June 19, 2001
I attended the City College of New York (CCNY) intermittantly in the 50s, and graduated with a BEE in 1962. Perhaps in part because of my experience as a technician, I got -- and kept -- a job as a Member of the Technical Staff at RCA Laboratories-David Sarnoff Research Center. I was surprised to find that although my colleagues had collectively come from many fine schools (MIT among them), CCNY was more heavily represented than any other single school. CCNY was essentially tuition free in those years and before. It charges tuition now, and it's not as good a school as it was then.

CCNY had no dormatories; it was and is a subway school, and had no part in housing or feeding students or staff. (OK, there was a cafeteria, no charge for eating a bag lunch there.)

-- Jerry Avins, July 29, 2001

America. Love it or leave it. America's largest exports are chemicals and weapons. We play hard. In our country, the richest in the world, we have 50 million people with no health insurance. You know, in Germany, if you have no job you get free shelter, food, education, and health care!! Here in America you get nothing. It keeps us against the wall. And you know, that is when we shine. You know what happened to those who created multimillion fortunes from the Web? They got lazy. When you have a whole in your pocket you HAVE to produce. You think education is expensive? Try ignorance. One thing I don't understand, though...why do American Private Universities teach art and such? Not that I am against art, but why squeeze $ 150,000 out of parents to teach junior how to drool on canvas and say wow...

And you know, even now when I mention I went to MIT I get wows. Just the name IS worth the 150K. And we don't go to MIT to stay engineers! We grow into technical management, and later into general management. These days us nerds are more popular than Harvey subjective types! The revenge of the nerds!!

-- George Lechter, August 18, 2001

For someone who depends so heavily on an economics argument, you certainly donít use it very well.

Is it not possible that MIT students are going to the highest paying jobs because those are where they are most needed. That is how the free market works.

If you would like to argue using economics, than you should know that MIT practices first degree price discrimination. Since perfect competition is impossible since entry is difficult among elite schools, first degree price discrimination is economically most efficient because it allows those most impoverished to attend.

(Incidentally, you neglect to mention that MIT refused to comply with the justice department ruling, and in the end, thanks to MITís efforts, the ruling was overturned by Act of Congress.)

So you argue, that charging nothing also allows the most impoverished to attend. Fine. However, I always hate arguments that make college education at elite schools cheaper for students. Any such plan basically represents a transfer from the poor to the rich. Any engineer graduating from MIT will if not right away, will soon be among the top 5 if not top 1 percentile in the nationís income distribution. When a majority of the country makes under $30,000 a year, any argument that favors the privileged MIT alumni is untenable. Further, the only prospective MIT students who receive no funding are those whose parents are firmly in the middle class, if not upper middle class, and while these parents feel poor, they are most certainly much better off than the majority of this country, much less the world.

Free tertiary education is a travesty. It is the ultimate hypocrisy for those who advocate greater equality, and yet complain about tertiary education costs. America is the only country that comes close to doing it right. Smart people like you should know better.

You have excellent advice regarding photography, Mr. Greenspun, but this article quite seriously mars your credibility.

--- Ben Ho MIT SB SB í99, SB M.Eng Ď00 (currently PhD student of economics at Stanford GSB, and Masters of Ed student at Stanford GSE)

-- Ben Ho, November 11, 2001

In response to Ben Ho:

You state "Is it not possible that MIT students are going to the highest paying jobs because those are where they are most needed."

Unless I misread, Mr. Greenspun suggested that graduating MIT engineers weren't going and getting 50k$/yr jobs at GM (designing ABS brakes), but rather were going back to medical, law, or business school so they _could_ earn the top paying jobs.

You also state "first degree price discrimination is economically most efficient because it allows those most impoverished to attend."

Have you forgotten the "poor" students who drop out because they can't afford to live while attending school? Or from my experience, I went to school with a young woman who got very little financial aid because her parents' old California home had rocketed in value to 400k$, and thus she was not considered "needy".

Your argument is bunk anyway--free tuition _must_ be as or more financially feasible to the poor than the current system. The fact that it also would allow the wealthy to attend for the same non-price is irrelevant.

-- Michael Teter, February 10, 2002

One aspect of this problem you don't address is how to maintain the premium status of the top universities without a high sticker price. The top universities are Giffin goods where the high prices imply high quality and serve to increase their perception of exclusivity and in turn consumer demand. Their prices will always be higher that the competition just to reinforce this perception. The monopolistic behavior they exhibit allows them to maintain the high 'asking' price but reduce it for 'qualified' (admitted) students through financial aid, so that the 'qualified' students don't go elsewhere and thus diminish average SAT statistics, etc. Certainly the status of the very top universities would not be diminished overnight by ignoring this effect, but this problem needs further thought because it is what helps drive tuitions of the top schools up to extreme levels.

Perhaps free is a price which would short circuit the giffin good argument because it is unique and not a comparible measure.



-- Peter Ashley, May 29, 2002

I only discovered this page by accident while looking for rdb info and curiousity ran away with my mind again and led it thru the article and all the comments. I don't presume to make any valid judgement of the efficacy of any of the comments or proposals offered [ and I am not the Bob Doe who is editor of the TES ] but in summary, I was encouraged by the widespread recognition that there are problems evident with most present methods of education funding.

The indications seem to be that the problems increase proportionaly as the scope and size and/or the method of providing the funding increase. The same holds generally true for the institution or method of delivering the education.

An obvious case can be made for reducing both to the smallest and most effective unit that can collect and deliver the information accurately and economically.

At this time ,that would logically seem to be a database .

It would be funded by those whose use of the information justified creating and maintaining it . This is currently done in many cases now.

Extending this model to use for all education , commercial, technical, public and private could provide a well managed logicallly accessible pool of information. The internet/web etc. probably contains much of the information already but a lot of it is very hard to organize and access .

The various governmental units could determine the type and volume of public funded education it's constituents wished to provide it's citizens for the general good.

The present public and private educational system in its various forms could still develop and offer courses in whatever viable and desirable method they chose to continue. The citizens could then be personally responsible for the cost of any education beyond the publicly funded level.

The knowledge would be made easily available in the databases at the lowest cost to students who wanted to learn on their own schedule without the usual cost of buildings , teachers, travel ,room and board etc.

Those who wanted to could still have a more familiar type of learning if they thought the benefits were worth the cost.

It will be interesting to see to what extent and at what rate this obvious solution develops. I fear that a considerable number of even those who readily see benefits in this model will still be reluctant to give up the present system despite all it's problems.Effective implementation and use of the database courses would reduce the need for much of the present educational structure and personel which would require beneficial alternate employment of them.

There was an often recurring indication throughout these comments that many thought good post secondary education should be available to all wanting it and with financial aid to those needing it.

Bob Doe bob@midcountry.net

-- Bob Doe, March 3, 2003

"The founding principle of Olin College of Engineering is to prepare leaders able to predict, create and manage the technologies of the future. The Olin education is provided at little or no cost to bright, talented, creative, and ambitious students, regardless of their financial circumstances."

-- Robert Smith, April 12, 2003
When I last checked in the Wall Street Journal, one of the interesting things about Harvard was that its endowment was sufficient that it could go forward without charging any of its students tuition. Interestingly enough, it continues to do so, for reasons more related to excluding people of the wrong class than any other I can see. | I should also note that at the last prep school briefing a partner of mine attended, he was told that his son's chances went from 100% auto admit at Brown to only a 40% chance if they discovered the kid was pre-med. Much of prep school seems oriented around the concept of hiding the fact that a student is pre-med. | Interesting, especially with the MIT students that are going into med school.

-- Anon Again, October 13, 2003
I am amused that the comment I left 4 years ago, garnered replies. I am also amused that as the current Lecturer of Stanford's class on public economics, I am actually covering this topic in my class next week.

Elite universities like Harvard maintain their elite status not by a high price, but by having rigorous need-blind entry standards. Harvard happily only charges the poor as much as what the federal government believes they are able to pay. The reason they don't make it free for all, is that sadly, most of the students that have sufficient preparation to handle the rigor a school like Harvard or Stanford (or to a lesser extent MIT) have parents with loads of cash. It seems stupid to waste money, whether Harvards or the governments, paying for the education of the children of the rich.

-- Ben Ho, April 13, 2005

How about MIT grads paying the way for current undergrads? Set up a system where every undergrad signs a contract agreeing to send, say, 5% of all their future earnings over $50,000. You would end up with a system where people pay what their education actually ends up earning them. I'm sure someone making $250,000 a year would balk at having to pay $10k a year for decades, but the majority making $50-80k probably wouldn't mind $1-2k for the peace of mind that knowing they get to study whatever they want and not have a financial cloud hanging over their head for years gives them. If someone ends up doing really interesting science somewhere but isn't making any money off it, then MIT gets nothing though, so I suppose this would make MIT tend to steer undergrads into fields where they are more likely to earn a big paycheck. However, you would get an increasing pool of earners supporting a fairly constant group of undergrads. In 20 years, maybe the percentage would drop to 1%?

So MIT gets to admit whoever it wants based on brains alone, and students only have to pay what their MIT degree earns them in the real world. Of course you would still probably have legacies, since even a kid of average intelligence whose dad is on the board of Merril-Lynch will in all likelyhood be contributing more to the fund than the average particle-physics genius. But once the fund grows big enough, then MIT would only need to let the truly smart in.

-- Peter Joy, June 22, 2005

This page doesn't even touch on the 'early-decision' problems. Early decision students can't turn down the offer, even if they are given no financial aid. Universities won't show any statistics on this matter, but students from lower an middle class families rarely apply early decision to top schools, because they know they can't afford it, and the university will have them by the balls, so to speak.

Early-decision removes another level of competition, forcing students to not be able to decide. Of course, they say, if you don't want to apply early decision, then don't. But in reality, lots of students DO, and the classes fill up with them before the 'normal' applications are accepted/rejected. So early decision consistently takes spots away from lower income students and gives them to rich brats. And admitted early decision students have been shown to be slightly worse on average than their normal counterparts.

Sorry I'm not citing facts and figures much.

Some schools (I forgot who) have started to reverse this Early Decision trend, and I applaud them for it, as it was a step in the absolute wrong direction.

-- Ryan Pseudonym, January 6, 2006

I saw that it was mentioned once earlier by Robert Smith, but Olin College of Engineering does exactly what you're talking about. The first two classes at Olin received full scholarships for tuition and room (so I only had to pay for textbooks, food, and the laptop), but every class after us receives full scholarships for tuition. The breakdown of the costs for attending are here.

To be fair, we (I'm a student there currently) are much smaller (total undergraduate population of < 300), and were started by the Olin Foundation with the explicit purpose of being free of cost to students while providing a solid engineering background. Whether or not it's feasible to change the very ingrained system at MIT to something like Olin's is questionable. We're only 5 years old, after all.

Needless to say, it is a huge financial burden being lifted off everyone's shoulders - Olin will even provide further financial aid if you have difficulties paying for the room or any other materials. The caliber of teaching is excellent as well. In fact, a large number of faculty are from MIT, including Gill Pratt, Diana Dabby, Rob Martello, and several others. If you're set on tuition free schooling, you should come on over - we're just down the road in Needham. :)

-- Brian Shih, January 8, 2006
great idea : look @ india- what you say abt MIT is actually true for a lot of other colleges in Developed countries. But in India where "Need for education is very high and growing fast" there is a different approach there is a meritocracy for all the best colleges, and for the aristocracy there are donation based colleges. Wherever meritocracy is involved ,the percentile of student getting in is 97-99 (only for engineering/medicine) 3% of anything in India is a large number :). Anyone can think of joining the best educational instt. and work hard to be there.

The only problem is that a not of in-house research is happening or seeing the light of the day the biggest set of R&D instt. are actually owned by Govt. and the system is far from perfect. People opting for phD are very few ratio between under graduates , graduates and phDs would be very very low ...

-- amritanshu johri, February 2, 2006

The example of the Vietnamese girl is not far to be true because every Vietnamese family now has a computer in their house. And as you see, MIT now has the Online OpenCourseWare. We may get their but I still think, online school is not enough for a curious student. The whole progression is very promising though!

-- anh truong, August 22, 2007
What seems to have flown over the heads of most commenting is that Dr. Greenspun is not proposing all schools become tuition free. Simply that MIT could benefit from such a transition.

-- Chris Anderson, February 15, 2008
The meritocracy aspect of this is very appealing. I have met many gifted science minded students who would never consider MIT strictly for reasons of cost.

A purely student-merit (as opposed to student-parent-checkbook-based) would make MIT a stronger school. A greater magnet for donations, and an example for other schools to strive for.

-- Kyle Martin, May 9, 2008

I think it is worthwhile to share how tuition fees/debt works in Australia for all universities (government debt scheme).

Undergrads don't have to pay any tuition fees until they start working/earning above a certain threshold. A small percentage of their pay is then automatically taken out to reduce their tuition debt. Of course there is interest on your debt to account for inflation but incentives are provided for voluntarily repaying your debt early.

The catch is you have to be working in Australia... So you if you never actual work/have taxable income in Australia, you never have to pay your debt. Of course this only applies to citizens, international students don't get this benefit.

But keep in mind that this is only about how tuition debt is handled, not including scholarships schemes and social security. I use to receive AUD100 p/wk allowance from the government for being a student from a low income family. Yet with all this support, almost all undergrads in Australia still work dead end part time jobs just for cash.

Fortunately as an Australia, my family and I didn't have to go through a MIT pinch but at the same time its unfortunate that we can't afford MIT. But these barriers/difficulties are motivating and reading the articles/books on this site is encouraging and only makes me all the more hungry and determined.

If not tuition-free, at least tuition-accessible.

-- Josh Chia, June 20, 2010

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