07/17/2012 02:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

Ivy League, Free of Charge

Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, once observed that change happens slower than you thought it would, and then faster than you thought it could.

Today proves his point.

Coursera -- the aggregator of world-class "massive open online courses" (MOOCs) -- announced this morning that 12 of the most prestigious universities in the world have joined its program.

By fall, more than 100 courses -- from physics to psychology to ancient history -- will be available from institutions like Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Princeton, the University of Toronto, and CalTech. They're lining up some of the world's most brilliant theorists and compelling lecturers to create videos, interactive applications and course content -- as good as online education gets in 2012. And while the courses don't carry college credit at this point, they undoubtedly will -- perhaps in forms and structures new to higher education.

And in the meantime, it's free. As in, no charge. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection, and the motivation to learn something new.

At the same time, Sallie Mae reported yesterday that families are contributing less to the cost of their kids' college education than they were two years ago. In fact, much less.

Two years ago, parent and student savings and income covered about 53 percent of the cost of college education, leaving 47 percent to be paid for through loans and grants.

This year, families picked up the tab for only 44 percent of those costs, leaving it to the rest of us -- taxpayers, colleges, and donors -- to make up the difference.

No doubt the state of the economy has had an impact on families' ability to support their children's education. But so, too, is the general assumption that the American Dream promises that every child can attend any college he or she can get into -- regardless of the price. And that saving for college is something we should be doing... but aren't.

Consider, for example, reports from FinAid and the College Savings Foundation:

• While two-thirds of families say they are saving for college, one-third of those families have actually put away less than $5,000;
• Parents of toddlers are more likely to have started college savings accounts than the parents of high school kids;
• About 75 percent of high school students say they want to start saving for college (start?), but only about 45 percent of those kids have actually put away a single dollar;
• Increasing numbers of high school students -- more than 20 percent -- say they plan to attend expensive private colleges;
• Two-thirds of students say they'll borrow to go to college, but only a quarter say they have any idea how much borrowing they'll need to do; and
• In what we might call the "Lake Wobegon Effect," more than 70 percent of high school students say they expect to receive enough scholarships to cover the cost of their college education (in fact, only about 15 percent of all college students actually do).

The problem with higher education isn't that college is so expensive. In fact, families have a full spectrum of choices, from community colleges to public universities to more costly private institutions.

The problem is that we've come to expect that every child has the right to attend any institution willing to accept him or her, regardless of the cost. And that somebody, somewhere, will foot the bill or forgive the loans.

That's not a model we can sustain.

What we can do is promise every student a world-class education at an affordable price.

There will always be families willing and able to invest in a traditional college experience, and that experience will continue to be as valuable and life-changing as it always has been.

But for those without the financial means, or the savings accounts, or the willingness to pay back those tens of thousands of dollars in college loans, there soon will be another Ivy League option. Taught by the world's most brilliant faculty. At a cost any student can afford.

I'm taking a class through Coursera this fall. Taught by faculty from the University of Edinburgh, it's all about what it means to teach and learn in a digital age. I'll keep you posted.