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Yes, We Can Have Free College Education--Here's How

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In a  recent article I made a bold proposal: Bring our nation's workers up to competitive speed by offering a free college education to all qualified applicants. The crippling cost of higher education is fueling a frightening college dropout rate in the U.S. while China and other countries are vaulting ahead in preparing a 21st century ready workforce.

I was gratified to see the strong positive response to my proposition -- clearly readers are concerned about the costs and challenges of higher education. Several people dared me to demonstrate how such a program could work. Here's my answer. It's based on an existing program that I helped found that has been consistently successful in delivering minimal cost education.

The Center for Learning and Living (CL&L) at Marymount Manhattan College began in 1992 with a proposal for a low-cost program of college level continuing education courses for adults over age 55. To keep costs down and still maintain high quality the goal was to recruit only volunteer instructors -- retired college professors, other teachers, and professionals from various fields. The proposal raised eyebrows. Skeptics asked, "Why would anyone teach for no pay?" Who indeed! What a surprise when a few advertisements in local publications, postings on bulletin boards -- as well as a vigorous word-of-mouth and networking campaign -- promptly produced a faculty that any educational institution would be proud to have. In fact, it turned out that an impressive number of highly qualified people were not just willing to teach for no pay, they clamored for the job -- college professors, business executives, artists, judges and high level government officials in foreign relations, international affairs, economics, and much more.

Charles Carshon was an early faculty member. For 35 years he was Chairman of the Arts Division and Head of the Studio Theater at Sarah Lawrence College. He was also an acting coach at The Stella Adler Theater Studio, where his students included Robert De Niro, Jane Alexander, and Warren Beatty. His drama, poetry, and literature courses at CL&L were student favorites. Rita Satz, an Emmy award-winning producer at WNBC News for 22 years, teaches the popular "Inside TV News." Ina Schlesinger, Professor Emerita of political science at the State University of New York, has given exciting courses like "The Great Illusion: Russia in the 20th Century."

The list goes on and includes world-class retired teachers from Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and other leading institutions. Even younger volunteer teachers have joined us. Jasmin Cowen, a professional harpist with a doctorate in music education has taught courses on opera. Her most recent offering was "Love, Sex and Other Vital Operatic Themes." Jasmin is a charismatic teacher who always attracts a full house.

At its height, CL&L served 200 students and offered 18 courses per semester. The program was only limited by the two classrooms that were available. Then two years ago, Marymount announced that they needed our space in order to expand its undergraduate programs. We set out to look for a new home for our program. After an intense search we lucked out with a wonderful space in a new high-rise building connected to St. Catherine of Sienna Church on East 68th Street in Manhattan. Fr Jordan Kelly resonated with our program and its philosophy. The classroom he offered us accommodates a hundred students and can be divided into two rooms. This setting was perfect for the new independent launch. With Fr Jordan's generous low-rental and the use of the church's computer, projector, and an LCD TV for DVD presentations, we are able to run the program with minimal cost to students. In fact, the cost is lower than at Marymount, since the program is now administered by talented volunteers led by Richard Frankel who formerly organized medical symposiums and worldwide medical congresses for major pharmaceutical companies.

For $230 a student can enroll in all 11 courses. That bare bones price covers the rental fee and necessary supplies for the program. And now that we are running at a profit -- even from the low tuition -- we will turn the surplus back into the program to pay for scholarships, equipment, and social events, which will help promote a collegial atmosphere. Although the program is not entirely free, $230 for 11 courses is a far cry from the $1,314 per credit at colleges like NYU, where one three-credit college course costs $3,942.

The CL&L experience -- and similar programs throughout the country -- offers convincing evidence that it is possible to recruit dedicated, enthusiastic, and talented volunteer teachers. But how does this translate into a program of free -- or nearly free -- college education for undergraduate students?

The free college, which I've given the working title TAFWU (Third Age Free Wisdom University), would deliver all its courses to students anywhere in the country using interactive technologies like Skype. And just as the students can be located anywhere, so can the faculty. That mobility opens an exciting opportunity for recruiting vast numbers of faculty.

This proposal is not pie in the sky or science fiction. In fact, more and more colleges are relying on the internet and interactive technologies to deliver courses, even to resident students. And distance learning that uses technology is proliferating. Some education experts predict that within a decade cyber world technology will be the standard in college teaching. And why not? The traditional medieval teaching model, which dates back to the first universities in the 11th (University of Bologna) and 12th (University of Paris and Oxford) centuries is long due for an overhaul.

How will TAFWU teachers access the technology for delivering their courses? They can use personal computers in their homes, retirement communities, and/or locations that can be established near where they live. Space can be donated by local businesses or public schools, which are accessible in every community. Not much room is needed for a Skype type communication. Many companies and businesses -- including Crown America Corporation, Boscov's Department Stores, and Wachovia Bank -- are already donating free space for public use. Others can be persuaded to do the same for the compelling cause of making higher education widely available.

How will TAFWU handle the one-on-one relationships that colleges offer, with teaching assistants (TAs) and fellows (TFs) who lead individual and group discussions? TAFWU can duplicate that, and possibly do it even more effectively. Given the large potential corps of teachers available in every community, TAFWU could supply mentoring and personal interactions using teachers even more qualified than the graduate students that universities provide. These mentors could meet with local students in the same rooms donated for course deliveries in store fronts, banks, department stores, local schools, senior centers and other such locations.

Will TAFWU take jobs away from teachers? Not from those who aren't employed because students have dropped out. And if TAFWU teachers are serving dropouts and others who can't afford college, that's not taking, it's giving a lot for America's future. Perhaps TAFWU will pose a threat to traditional colleges and universities. That could be good. The competition may help impose President Obama's "lid" on higher education costs and even bring tuitions down.

The education crisis has dramatically underscored our pressing economic challenges. Standing still is not an option. But are we ready to step out of our ideologies -- left and right -- to confront reality on its own terms? If free college education is a potential solution, in a skimpy field of meaningful solutions a national debate is in order.

Not heeding this call means we will remain mired in lame rhetoric. We have only to be reminded of Desmond Tutu, who remarked, "When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'let us close our eyes and pray.' When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land."

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is author of The Crucifixion of Truth, a drama set in 16th century Italy and Spain. Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. At Brooklyn College Starr taught developmental (more...)

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