What does a college's economics have to do with its educational processes and with learning?
Most colleges charge exorbitant tuition and other required fees (even for services you never use). College costs have climbed, steadily outpacing typical annual inflation figures. Studies recently have shown that the increase is not due to and does not go to instruction. It goes to the administration (which colleges see as job-creating ventures, in part), to athletics, to luxurious facilities (that usually do not meet student needs), student activities, to advertising, record-keeping, career services, alumni offices, wine and food festivals, and so forth. In the Boston area, you can expect to pay for more than teaching in every institution you enroll in. Our college approaches things very differently. Tuition at College X will be less than what a tuition and fees are at local community colleges, and 10% of what a course would cost (if you can get in) at the most highly branded, prestigious institutions.
As we try to embody another kind of economic system, we find ourselves and even our most radical alternative visions embedded in an economy that runs on money. While it is possible for individuals to drop out, we have not yet attained a community that is free of all connections to the surrounding economy. Many of our teachers draw a significant proportion of their living from their work as teachers; unlike in institutional education, our teachers do not receive a salary from a central business office. There is no central decision-making body to determine fixed, required costs, nor a group that sets salaries. Their wages are received as independents. (Our affiliation as a college is not mediated by money, or by formal organization. It is direct and personal.)
Hence, we charge a fee for our teaching services. These fees reflect the full cost of holding the course: the teacher's fee and the rental of the space. If you compare these costs to a community college's tuition and fees, you'll see that ours are slightly higher, but this is because community colleges rely on the bureaucratic and oppressive machinery of the state, which raises funds for public education through taxes (but of course spends the money on other things as well). The true cost of a course at a community college is much more than the 400-500/course they currently charge.
KEEP IN MIND: teachers at institutional universities draw a salary from a central pot of money, and it looks like they offer their non-classroom time for free, but this is an illusion. Salaries or wages hide the fact that students are charged for all the work put in by teachers (those who initiate contact with such teachers are in fact getting more for their money than those who don't). At our college we are trying to remove that illusion, revealing the true cost of our labor, though some are freely giving away their time for outside-of-class work. it's not an ideal situation, but some of us believe that the greater fiscal transparency goes some way toward freeing us of economic inequities.
In this economic system, getting something for free frequently leads to habits of dependency, not to self-sufficiency. And yet having to pay too much leads to worry and greed and a fractured sociality. High price tags tend to create a false sense of greater value. Hence, transparency, treading the middle way, is most likely to support community. In order to accommodate those who are unable to pay the full amount (which is nevertheless kept low in most cases), we maintain a list of possible alternatives to full-cost fees. These are only possibilities; each teacher sets financial practices for her or his classes.
We are thinking about ways to simplify financial transactions without resorting to central business offices. It could be that students deposit money in an account that allows them to take as many classes as they want and the course fees (still particular to the individual instructor) would be drawn from that account, or the teacher could charge the account. But this is only preliminary thinking. We may want to set up an online means of this happening, but we'd really like to keep it human.