Lowering the Price of Higher Education, Here & Now

09/13/2010 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In an effort to earn a college education, students around the world find themselves facing mounting debt. According to data recently released by the Federal Reserve, American students owe almost $830 billion in student loan debt. And this number is only growing, both in the United States and abroad. Even as the economy continues to falter and the number of people facing poverty increases, the average cost of a US college education has skyrocketed to an average of $30,000.

Does the cost of education need to be so high? No.

The extent to which information and knowledge is being offered free online is impressive. It allows people to study at no charge, whenever and whatever they choose. You can watch an MIT lecture in Vietnam or read an article by a Nobel Prize winner from a refugee camp in the Sudan. The free flow of information online and access to quality open access material must be furthered, but we must also remember that open access alone is not sufficient to the democratization of education.

Additionally, the cost of developing courses can also be significantly reduced with open source technology. Currently, every university develops its own courses, one of the most costly aspects of running an academic institution. Why do we need so many professors developing courses at so many universities? Just as we share materials online, we must also share talent. If we enlist the top minds in every discipline to create quality courses and then distribute them via open source technology, we can drastically reduce education costs, lessening the economic burden on students.

We also need to rely more on peer-to-peer learning and capitalize on the natural tendency people have to help each other learn. Accustomed to the rapidly growing world of social networking where people share information freely, students should be encouraged to engage in dialogue with one another as part of their studies. Particularly where students hail from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and regions, the potential to help educate one another is unlimited. Under the supervision and direction of a tutor, student dialogue can be an effective educational tool that should not be underestimated.

The availability of open access material and open source technology, coupled with social networking have been pivotal elements to the establishment and development of University of the People. We have found them to be great educational resources.

While I recognize that the above options may not suit every university or every student, they should be considered by institutions serious about lowering the costs of higher education. There will always be students who will prefer traditional learning environments, but learning online is proving to be a great way to study for many people, including 4 million students in the United States. The options for higher education which I outline also present a fantastic solution for those students who face financial constraints and for whom there are no other alternatives.

It is imperative that we lower the costs of higher education. Requiring students to take on so much debt in order to study, when access to education is a fundamental right and when alternatives exist, simply cannot be sustained any longer.

Shai Reshef is the Founder & President of University of the People, the world's first tuition-free online university.