06/04/2013 05:33 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

Free Higher Education

Some time ago, I attended a gathering of college and university presidents brought together by The Chronicle of Higher Education. A number of luminaries were asked to get the conversation going by speaking about what they imagined for a positive future for higher education. To encourage them to let their imaginations soar, the speakers were told to pretend they were gods. Their responses were wonderful. And yet, they were fairly impotent gods, imagining a situation remarkably similar to today's, with some of the more obvious problems of higher education addressed. These were gods that tweaked rather than imagined miracles.

I wanted them to go further.

In particular, I wondered about one option that would really be a miracle. What if education were free?

In its most obvious sense, free has to do with cost. But costs can be hidden. As Chris Anderson explains in, among other places, Free: Why $0.00 is the Future of Business, such costs are cross-subsidies: getting something for free while paying for something else (like the toy in a Happy Meal) or paying for the service rather than for the product (as with many cell phone offers). Yet, as he also tells us, the web has landed us in the strange place of "freeconomics," where scale makes it possible to lower the cost of the product itself.

In higher education, this is known as the MOOC. There are also other examples of free higher ed, like the Occupy Movement's efforts at education and versions of TED talks or open-to-the-public lectures. (There are also scholarship-only colleges, although without the Cooper Union, their numbers are very few.)

The debates are raging currently about how (or whether) MOOCs will change the landscape of higher education. Additionally, there are implications of gouging and calls for a $10,000 education, as well as arguments that some areas are worth public investment and others, well, less so. (I am tempted to ask: Where did some of these people get their "educations" that they argue for funding colleges based on whether their graduates land jobs and impugn respected fields like gender studies at UNC?)

Free, of course, conveys not only zero cost, but the notion of freedom: free discourse with attentive and thoughtful listening, for example. If we thought of free not only in economic terms, higher education might be able to make a real impact. Economic status might stop being such a strong predictor of educational achievement, and we might be able to measure not merely individual student outcomes but, also, social change.

Imagine: higher education that reduces violence. Higher education that imagines hope and makes it real. Higher education that changes lives not merely by ensuring employability but by creating meaning. That is higher education that is truly free.