How much should education cost? One answer is: nothing, that knowledge should be free, both as in beer and as in freedom. I think that’s a bad answer, for it only hides the nonzero cost of education — after all, someone has to pay for all those classrooms and labs and most importantly, those teachers. Perhaps a better way of phrasing the question is: how much should education cost and who should pay for it?

The only universally acceptable answer to this question has been: education should be free for individuals and paid for by the state. In practice, that social contract was never perfect even in the richest countries in the world and it is breaking down. School education remains free in the west because basic literacy and arithmetic skills are considered the bare minimum for any livelihood in an industrial society. When demand is universal, everyone — parents, employers, politicians — is willing to make public investments in school education.

However, that model only works when education is finite — for most people it stopped after school, when they started working and paying their dues, so to speak. In the 21st century, education is continuous and life-long. You never know when your industry will be disrupted, or for that matter, when you will discover that you have a passion for the butterflies of the North Eastern United States. How we do cost education for continuous learning?

I have a simple solution: in a world of continuous learning, education is like entertainment. After all, we get most of our stories through books, TV and movies. Some of it is free, or subsidized via advertising, but we expect to pay for premium entertainment either in a movie theater or on cable TV. However, we don’t expect to pay that much: even the most expensive cable subscriptions set us back about 200 dollars a month in the west and about 1000 rupees a month in India.

Cable pricing suggest a new model for education: let it be free until class 12th and then let it cost the equivalent of a decent meal a day. In other words, if you pay $6 for lunch, you should be paying $200 a month for continuous learning — not that different from your cable bill. Assuming 60 years of paid continuing education, it should cost you $150,000, less than Harvard, but spread out over an entire lifetime. Further, some if it can and should be subsidized by employers, for they benefit from your skills. An education subsidy similar to health insurance premiums (though much much lower) will reduce the costs for the individual even more.

In other words, education is “food for thought.” Your parents (and the state) pay for your food until you are ready to earn on your own and from then on, it should cost the same as a meal. That’s the only way to make continuous education sustainable and accessible to most of the population.

Note: I am experimenting with this model in the two initiatives I am starting this fall: Knofu and MIT Meets the Monastery.