A Reply to Mashable – 5 Reasons Why the Cost of Education Will Not Be Zero in the Future

A recent debate concerning the impact of technology on the cost of education took place on the Mashable blog (a blog I place in my Top 5 when it comes to social media information). In this intriguing article, the author argued that technology was driving the cost of education to zero, citing as examples the University of the People and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Courseware. The debate has exploded generating an instantaneous reaction of more than 800 tweets and more than 40 comments. Personally, even though I welcome the initiative of the author in stimulating debates and thoughts around this issue, my personal thoughts are pointing in another direction as I tend to think that in the future, the cost of education will continue to increase. Here are 5 reasons why I think the cost of education will not be zero in the future:

1. Technology is not an important predictor of tuition fees
2. Good Information doesn’t mean good education
3. The competitive structure of academic markets will not change
4. High tuition fees are a signal of competence for universities
5. Building a strong social network comes with a price

1. Technology is not an important predictor of tuition fees

First and most importantly, it is useful to mention that technology is not an important (significant) predictor of tuition fees. Main drivers are costs that include:

1. Faculties and staff salaries
2. Administrative costs
3. Promotional events
4. Competitive geographic location
5. Copyright information fees

Unfortunately for the supporters of the “free” option, out of these 5 points only the second one could decrease if universities were to offer more online courses.

2. Good information doesn’t mean good education

Secondly, I totally agree that technology is driving the cost of most information to zero, but information and education are not synonymous. Information is defined as the “knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction” (Merriam-Webster) while education is defined as “the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process” (Merriam-Webster). In other words information is an antecedent of education. Good information is a step forward for good education but it doesn’t necessarily result in it. Furthermore, it is not because an individual has taken a look at the courses materials at MIT Open Courseware that this person has the same knowledge as the student who has attended the course and interacted with other students. Also, there is always a gap between what is taught and what is available on the Internet, and as a lecturer I always try to add a value to course attendance by questioning students and making them interact with each other. Thus, it is not because there is good information available online that you will be able to get the best out of it. More than a handful of educational tasks can be learned online, but creating quality courses online comes with a price: how much do you think it costs in time for professors to build high quality online classes? Which well-known professors want to teach online classes?

3. High Tuition Fees Are a Signal of Competence

Personally, I totally welcome the initiative of the University of the People to create an accessible university at lowest fees possible. However, the main problem that comes to mind is that if everyone with a high school diploma is accepted to university, what is the value of university? Is it decreasing? What is the value of that kind of degree? My personal answer to the latest question would be “nothing” or “really low”. As an employer, if an applicant came knocking at your door with that degree, how would you react? As pointed out by blogger Jeffrey Tang “the real issue is whether or not an education from these free services will ever get the same respect from serious employers as an education from “traditional” universities.”

In the 1970’s, the Nobel Prize winner, Michael Spence, proposed the theory of “signaling”, where it could be argued that education is a “signal” of your competence. As an extension of this theory, I would also argue that the university that delivers your degree also gives a strong signal of your competence. However, there is a myth that getting to top tier universities is synonymous of high tuition fees. Yes, top universities have high tuition fees, but the admission also comes with a funding package that will cover from some to most of these fees. Thus, another reason why these universities have high tuition fees is to reflect their standing (reputation), generally influenced by the payroll of their faculties.

4. The competitive structure of academic markets will not change

Another reason for high tuition fees is the quality of education that generally pairs with the reputation (expertise) of the university, which has nothing to do with technology. However, the competitive structure of academic markets is like a network loop that leads to dichotomous results and to the famous quote: “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”. Thus, it can be argued that:

1. Reputation (expertise) brings funds
2. Funds brings researchers
3. Researchers brings other researchers
4. Researchers brings reputation (expertise)

Thus, this loop is executed until infinity, creating a gap between universities and narrowing competition. This can also be illustrated by this figure below.


5. Building a strong social network comes with a price

The blogger Roland Hesz raised a good point on the Mashable blog concerning the importance of social life in education: “I am sorry, but going to the campus, actually meeting the other students – especially those we don’t like -, having to deal with them – especially with those we don’t like – having a SOCIAL life IS one of the most important parts of the education.” Furthermore, as referred to by education economists and sociologists, the “peer effect” contributes to an important part of our knowledge. Also, as pointed out by blogger Sandrine Prom Tep: “one thing I am sure of, is that social network – one of the very crucial thing education comes with – will never come for “free” or part of the “free bundle”…I am talking about the student’s alma matter’s belonging and what it does truly mean in professional life…How worth is it to be one of Harvard’s alumni? Do you really think that any Open CourseWare will come along with such tacit exclusive VIP membership?” This way of thinking could also be translated in a job interview by the following sentence:” I don’t hired you because you are competent, I hired you because you have a strong network, you have earned the letters that I can put on a business card besides the company name, and if you have difficulties with a problem, you will be able to resolve it by contacting a member of your network. Thus, as stated in the 2007 movie “Into the Wild“, “experiences are better when shared”.

Conclusion and Debate

The main conclusion I could draw from this analysis is that I firmly believe that in the future the cost of education will not be zero. However, as always, I welcome any thoughts that would perhaps change my opinions. Please feel free to join the debate with questions, comments or bashing on this issue.

Jean-Francois Belisle

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3 thoughts on “A Reply to Mashable – 5 Reasons Why the Cost of Education Will Not Be Zero in the Future”

  1. Excellent Post Jean-François! I agree 100% even if I deeply wish good education was made more accessible in various ways – overcoming the constraints you mention 🙂

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