Some ideas from the business world translate to academia better than others.

At my college, we’re running an experiment with a summer math workshop. It’s targeted at students who either took the math placement test and didn’t like the results, or who are soon to take the placement test and are concerned about the possible results. The goal is to refresh the memories of students who may be a little rusty, but whose basic math competencies are stronger than a cold test might indicate. The theory is that an adult student who hasn’t been in a math class since high school might not remember immediately how to multiply fractions, but with a quick refresher would be right back on top of it. Therefore, a quick refresher that saves a full semester or two of remediation is a good investment.

Until recently, we’ve charged students a nominal fee for the workshop, and have had very low enrollments. This year, as an experiment, we ran it at no charge to the students. Enrollments have more than quintupled; still lower than I’d like, but a dramatic improvement. (The workshop doesn’t carry academic credit, so we have much more flexibility about charges, seat time, and the like than we would for a credit-bearing class.)

Apparently, labeling it “free” made a tremendous difference. Now we’ll finally have enough enrollment to have meaningful numbers in assessing the program’s effectiveness.

Now the folks at South Georgia Technical College are applying that same magic word — free — to textbooks. According to IHE, it’s sponsoring a textbook rental program, much like K-12 public schools do. Students are issued their books as part of their tuition, and return the books at the end of the semester. Enrollment has jumped since they announced the program.

In the business world, of course, the notion of “free” as a magic word is well-known. It’s used to get people in the door — or whatever the web equivalent of that is — and/or to get them to buy more once they’re in. (“Buy two, get one free”) A successful business can use “free” items as loss leaders, making up the foregone earnings on the back end.

In higher ed, we’ve generally been more reluctant to think that way. We give away plenty for free — office hours, library access, etc. — but don’t market it that way. As such, we get the downside of providing freebies — lost income — while losing much of the upside. When budgets are tight, it can be hard to justify internally giving away something that’s costly to produce.

In the case of the math workshop, the hypothesis is that students who can shorten (or skip) the time they would have spent in developmental classes will retain and graduate at higher rates. Instead of getting frustrated and leaving after a semester or two, the student actually stays the full two years and leaves as a graduate, rather than a dropout. Multiply that by enough students, and the increased tuition/fee revenue more than covers the cost of the workshop. Better yet, it does so in an ethically defensible way. (South Georgia Technical College seems to be making a similar calculation: increased enrollments will more than pay for the cost of providing free textbook rentals.) The trick is in finding ways to make freebies sustainable, or even — dare I say it — profitable. If they work, both the math workshop and the textbook rental ideas strike me as potentially profitable over the long term, but in ways that actually benefit students.

In an era of tuition hikes, I’m thinking that “free” may become even more attractive than it already was.

Obviously, it would have to be managed carefully. If a program conceived as profitable becomes a drain, the college has a decision to make. And suddenly charging for something previously free tends not to go over well. (cough Netflix cough) Alternately, a program that’s sustainable at a smallish size might quickly outgrow its bounds. “Free” works best when it’s still a novelty, as opposed to an entitlement; I don’t see students breaking down doors for office hours, generally speaking.

But in a time when we’re trying all sorts of surcharges, user fees, price hikes, and service cuts to balance budgets, it’s heartening to see that some conscious movement in the other direction could actually work. If the internet has taught us anything at all — other than that cats love cheeseburgers — it’s that there’s a market for free.