What if you went to school for free?

Point: By making MIT free, the Institute can completely alter college education

Next year, MIT says, the all-inclusive cost of tuition, room, and board will top $50,000. What would happen if MIT made an executive decision that, by 2020, tuition would be free?

Each year when administrators talk about the tuition increase, they usually point out two things: first, that the “true cost” of educating each student is about twice as much as what MIT charges in tuition; and second of all, in every year I can remember, that the tuition increase has been matched by a larger increase in the total financial aid budget.

Think about that second point for a minute. In 2010-11, the sticker price will go up by 3.8 percent. But, once again, the financial aid budget will grow faster ­— in this case by 6.7 percent — with only a slight increase in total enrollment (about 50 more students: one percent of the undergraduate population).

Anyone who’s taken 18.01 can see where this is going: Over a long time, actual tuition paid will asymptotically approach zero. What would happen if MIT bit the bullet and announced it would happen by the end of this decade?

Some people wouldn’t be happy, namely current alumni who had to pay tens of thousands of dollars each year out of their upper-middle-class families’ dwindling savings and who couldn’t help but be dismayed to see the new kids get a better deal. Once they got over the envy though, maybe those people would be more likely to donate money for a really good cause.

Applications and yield would soar, as bright students soured by our current price and skeptical of our claim that we meet “all demonstrated need” would reconsider their full rides at state schools. More exceptional people who could someday change the world would enroll here.

International media would love MIT, showering on us the kind of attention that Harvard got with its no-tuition-for-many-families announcement and that MIT tried to match with its no-tuition-for-certain-families back in 2008. Our competitors would be forced to reevaluate how much they charged, potentially making the nation’s best schools more affordable.

We would have to make tough decisions about how many international students to accept — ostensibly they are capped at a small fraction of all undergraduate admissions for financial aid reasons. And it would get more expensive than ever to increase the undergraduate class size.

In the long run, because I am an optimist I believe that new alumni would be much more likely to give back to MIT, and much more likely to give even more. I think the number of students who give, and the average amount they gave, would dramatically increase; alumni would attribute their future successes to the generosity of the Institute.

Could MIT even afford to do make tuition free? Yes: I think that it would be a stretch, but it could be done. The current financial aid budget, $81.6 million, would have to double to cover 4,000 students’ tuition. That additional cost — $75 million/year or more — could be covered by $1.5–$2.5 billion in permanently endowed funds.

As a start, MIT could reroute all funds from the current, vaguely targeted “Campaign for Students” fundraising drive ($405 million raised since December 2006). Alumni reluctant to give to a fund targeted for “scholarships, fellowships, education, and student life” (read: practically anything) might be more likely to give to the “Free MIT Campaign”.

Rather than being a matter of personal responsibility, tuition is a real burden for some students. While some can handily afford to pay retail, for others the tuition bill comes at the expense of the parents’ inheritance or a prudent middle-class family’s savings — and, indirectly, at the expense of that family’s dreams. At the same time, federal rules about “how much money you need” can create strange corner cases. If a student’s parents are wealthy, estranged from them, but not abusive, want to make their life hard, MIT can become very expensive very quickly.

The number “zero” has unique psychological strength. Even if a higher price for tuition could be justified, it wouldn’t have the psychological staying power or the fundraising dominance of saying “everyone can get here for free.”

MIT prides itself on training the best of the world’s future leaders, scientists, and engineers. If MIT truly believes that what it is doing is good for the world, then shouldn’t it be willing to do whatever is necessary to train the best people possible?

With one bold, risky, and incredibly expensive move, MIT could challenge the nation’s concept of how American education works and become the unchallenged world leader in undergraduate science and education.