In response to this debt load, you'd think colleges and universities would be interested in controlling or lowering their costs. But, in fact, there's really little incentive for them to do so. For one thing, entrenched stakeholders - the faculty, the academic and student life bureaucracies, the athletic departments - will fiercely resist any economies that threaten their jobs or lower their budgets.
For another, there's buckets and buckets of money out there: parents' money, students' money, state and federal grants, and, especially, billions and billions of dollars available for student loans.
So while college teachers and administrators may bemoan the high debt their students incur, there is little material reason for them to cut costs. Indeed, what colleges and universities work hardest at these days is wrangling more money out of overburdened state and federal budgets.
But revolution is in the air. A new instructional technology called MOOC, for massive open online course, has the potential radically to alter the cost structure of higher education. MOOCs started up in 2011 when Stanford University offered three free online courses for all comers.
A quality MOOC features a great teacher, a carefully designed syllabus, good texts, interactive features, and reliable tests. Some MOOCs use technology that aims to prevent cheating, so a student's brainy friend can't take online tests for him. So far, MOOCs do not offer credit; that option almost certainly lies in the future. MOOCs are free but that will probably change too.
The cost implications are clear. Yes, the teacher is going to get paid very well and the materials are going to be costly to develop. But divide those development and operating costs not by 25 students - a typical class - but by 100,000 students. We're looking at a cost revolution. MOOCs arguably are not suited for every kind of course. Writing courses and advanced level courses, for example, may work best with small classes and one-on-one instruction.
But for other offerings - introductory courses, knowledge-based courses, "appreciation" courses - MOOCs may be as good as, or very much better than, what colleges now typically offer in large classes and lecture sections.
But the real value is cost. Suppose, say, one-third of students' college educations could be achieved through MOOCs. That means, very roughly speaking, that you could lay off a third of the faculty, mothball a third of your classrooms, and cut the bureaucracy accordingly. There's the revolution - dramatically cutting the cost of college without lowering its quality.
Will colleges adapt MOOCs to this purpose? No, of course not, for the reasons previously mentioned. Colleges and universities will largely include MOOCs as additions to their instructional packages, not replacements for existing courses.
But a few institutions will, I think, replace classroom instruction with MOOCs. These will be cutting-edge schools and bold start-ups. In a few years these new institutions will offer quality college education at prices traditional universities can't possibly match.
Then, perhaps, competition will kick in and the big boys will get smart too.
Roger Cranse teaches at the Community College of Vermont.