Three ways to make college affordable

Social entrepreneur Vance Fried offers three practical ideas that could make a difference in college affordability and access.

February 10, 2021

The Charles Koch Institute is honored to work with innovative, thoughtful social entrepreneurs in education, business, communities, and government. In 2021, we’re asking some of our partners to answer a “big question,” to dream with us about a society of mutual benefit, where others succeed by helping others improve their lives. Today’s installment is with Vance Fried, the president of TEL Foundation and TEL Education. Fried is also Director of the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise and Riata Professor Emeritus of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University.

CKI: How can we make college affordable?


Idea No. 1: Help students learn the same concepts in the same course, no matter what institution they attend (or how much they pay).

At TEL Education, we believe in education that is good enough for the richest, yet cheap enough for the poorest. We believe that all students, regardless of where they are from, their age, or the institution where they are studying, should have access to high-quality courses, with an expectation of learning the same information and skills as other students in comparable classes at another institution.

We focus on college general-education courses. Currently, students anywhere can start one of twenty self-paced classes from regionally accredited colleges through our Courses on Demand program. Tuition, instruction, course materials, and all fees are only $200 for a three-credit-hour course. Tuition is extremely low, not because of government subsidy, but because our courses have been highly engineered for asynchronous online delivery.

Idea No. 2: Rethink facilities

Being present on a college campus was once an inevitable part of college education, as it was the most efficient way to bring knowledgeable college instructors and students together. Now it is possible to bring the instructor and an engaging, rigorous curriculum to the student in the comfort of home, or in a dedicated blended-learning classroom at a public high school, church, or community center.

The quality of well-designed asynchronous, online courses is equivalent to the best the physical classroom can provide. Free online textbooks include high-quality, interactive graphics and engaging videos. Free online lectures give the student on-demand access to the best professors giving their best lecture on their best day. Personal tutoring and online exam proctoring are inexpensive and available 24/7.

Online delivery can also be blended with discussion or lab sessions. At most, this requires the student to spend an hour a week in a synchronous class session. These sessions can be delivered in a physical classroom or virtually.

While a residential campus is still necessary for students wanting the “college experience,” tuition can be dramatically dropped, and quality increased, by using a blended model for course delivery. While some of the cost savings from online and blended are due to reduced facility costs, far greater savings come from lower instructional delivery costs. Since online instruction is highly flexible, in-person class sessions and rigid time schedules can largely be eliminated. Once a digital course is developed, the marginal cost of a student accessing it over the Internet is nearly zero.

Consequently, classrooms limited to 30, 50, or 100 students can be scaled to thousands. Each student requires individual record-keeping, exam proctoring, exam and assignment grading, and feedback, so the courses can’t be free. But they can be very inexpensive.

Idea No. 3: Start college in high school

In addition to the direct costs of formal education, there are significant student opportunity costs. Every year spent on formal education is a year that cannot be spent earning income and gaining practical experience. A year or two of formal education can easily be eliminated by removing the unnecessary overlap between courses for the last two years of high school and the first two years of college.

TEL’s Collegiate Academy program provides online and blended courses that give high-school students easy access to college academics integrated into the familiar surroundings and support structure of home and high school. In our program, an accredited college provides the curriculum and instruction, while high-school teachers run any discussion and lab sessions. High-school teachers, acting as tutors, do not need direct supervision by the college nor are they required to meet the educational requirements for being a college instructor. This model, open both to independent learners and traditional high-school students, allows college-bound students to complete all their college general education, even an associate degree, while in high school.

Regardless of size, location, or student socioeconomic background, any high school can offer two years of college in high school. Besides saving students time, our Collegiate Academy program saves students money. Because our online courses cost less than existing state education subsidies, college can be free to the student. Currently our Collegiate Academy program is “free” to students in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. We expect to add “free” programs in several more states by the fall.

The Charles Koch Institute inspires and invests in social entrepreneurs developing solutions to America’s most pressing problems. Read more about our support for social entrepreneurs committed to education.