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End Note

Wanted: The $1,000-a-Year Education

A president’s proposal for an education revolution
University Business, April 2013

A father I know asked his 9th-grader how his math grades had jumped from C to A-, when prior personal tutoring hadn’t helped. The reply: “Dad, it’s easy! I taught myself using Khan Academy.”

Thanks to an innovative flow of new technology, the eagerness of young entrepreneurs, and the work of visionaries like Salman Khan, young people are adopting new breakthroughs in education. The Sloan Consortium’s Babson Survey Research Group/College Board study of online education found that 32 percent of U.S. higher ed students were taking at least one course online in fall 2011. And they are learning: 77 percent of academic leaders rated the outcomes in online education the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes. The number of those leaders identifying online learning as critical to their long-term strategy was 69 percent.

What does the future hold? Worldwide, there are about 1.5 billion children eligible for primary education and 650 million students eligible for higher education. What if we could effectively educate each student for just $1,000 a year? It would be an achievement greater than the $100 tablet computer (soon to be on the market) and would make education accessible to almost anyone.

Breaking it Down

If $1,000 a year is too difficult to imagine in nations like ours, where the real cost of a K12 or college education is far more, a two-pronged goal might be more realistic: an education that costs $1,000 a year in developing nations and some reasonable multiple of that in countries like ours. The cost of educating every eligible child on earth would be approximately $2.5 trillion a year. This is less than 4 percent of our $70 trillion global GDP and well below the nearly 5.5 percent of GDP the U.S. spends on education.

Soon, the next generation of educators will be fully engaged in this revolution. Students are using Khan Academy’s online videos to study independently and turning in their homework with the help of Blackboard and Edmodo. Having learned to burnish their own education using the internet, computers, and mobile phones, they will see little benefit in duplicating in the classroom what they can accomplish with technology. In other words, they won’t send in a teacher when an electronic device will do.

How profound will this revolution be? Consider technology’s impact on other industries. In the mid-1950s, a transatlantic phone call required routing through several operators and cost well over $1 a minute (adjusted for inflation, $9.50 today). Now, a caller can dial anywhere in the country for only a few pennies a minute. Back then, a round-trip flight from New York to California cost about $1,720 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while a similar ticket today could
be as low as $360 or less. The cost of computing since the mid-‘50s has decreased by over a factor of a billion and the price-to-performance ratio for PCs, not around until the late 70s, has improved by over a million.

Nearly every cost reduction has been coupled with improved performance: Cars have safety features unheard of just a few decades ago; air-travel fatalities are at an all-time low; and IBM’s Watson has won at “Jeopardy.”

Here’s a personal example of technology’s benefits: In 1965, the U.S. Navy assigned me a jet-powered helicopter to fly—by remote control—from the deck of a Vietnam-based destroyer. The total control signal was composed of 80 on-off bits, equal to a dozen letters of the alphabet in computer code. Today’s Navy drones, controlled by computer with a massive data link, can cover long-distances with the same precision as piloted jet fighters. The Navy autonomously landed an unmanned combat air vehicle on an aircraft carrier flight deck, a maneuver no admiral would have tolerated in the Vietnam era.

Already underway is a similar revolution in education effectiveness and efficiency, supported primarily by the venture capital market, that could produce countless positive ramifications. One way we could encourage and expedite it would be to create a global education challenge and prize.

A new global education competition, anchored by a prize on the order of $10 million to $20 million, will ignite and focus the innovative spirits of young and old. If the success of the X-Prize Foundation ( can be replicated, the prize will generate research and development worth 10 to 40 times its value. The real prize, of course, will be the myriad of new ideas, solutions, and inventions that will inevitably flow from the billion young citizens of the world with access to affordable, effective education.