There are at least five models of free or very low cost higher education in the world. Talk in my part of the higher ed world attends a lot to one of them--technology-enabled (or web-based) online education. The conversation about cost and quality ought to pay attention to all of them though, so that it can borrow from those that work best. Here they are:
1. technology makes it cheap--The University of the People is one of the most visible examples of free online institutions. Even more common are free online courses or learning materials (about which I have blogged a great deal).
2. government makes it cheap--This is the model in much of Europe, where once a student is accepted to university, tuition is free. (Given how limited access is to top universities in Europe, this variety looks a lot like #3.)
3. government makes it cheap for certain students--This is a more common model in the US, where many states offer full-tuition scholarships to valedictorians, or to top students.
4. subsidies make it cheap--BYU, BYU-Idaho, and BYU-Hawaii are all examples of universities that are inexpensive because their sponsoring organization--the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, subsidizes tuition dramatically.
5. endowments and alumni make it cheap--Cooper Union, Berea College, and Deep Springs all fall into this category. Each has a sizeable endowment which is used to provide free education to those who are admitted. Alumni giving is high.
From just a cursory look, it seems like only #5 provides both high quality and low cost (though #4 does a decent job as well). There are all sorts of reasons for this. Here are some: these schools are small, students are highly dedicated, their cultures focus on the duties that a free education imposes on its recipients, the co-curriculum and the curriculum are tightly woven so that it adds up to a holistic experience, schools and students are budget conscious (with many/most working on campus), their missions are strong, they had founders whose vision continue to shape the school.
If institutions are focused on reducing cost and raising quality they might profitably move in this direction