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The 10K BA Degree – Good, Bad, Worthy?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The Impetus for Change
The high cost of higher education is something of a national obsession – politicians, educators, average citizens, bloggers; everyone is talking about it and what can be done to make education affordable for more people. In a bold stroke leading up to his run for the Republican Presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry jumped into the fray in February of 2011 by calling for the Texas public higher education system to take steps to lower costs by offering bachelor’s degrees for $10,000 or less. Just over a year later the plan has come to fruition with Texas A&M regional campuses offering a limited selection of degrees, from start to finish and including books and fees, for under the target price. How do they do it? What can you learn for under $10,000? And will this become a trend for higher education going forward?

How They Do It
When tasked by their governor with creating affordable bachelor’s degree options, Texas educators got very innovative with their solution for providing an entire degree program within the target price range. The first program to be instituted is a very progressive new effort to cut costs in dramatic ways. In this program, cost are cut primarily by utilizing both community colleges and the regional A&M campus. The plan is for students to take the first two years of their coursework at the community college, then move on to the state school to finish their degree (Sanburn, March 9, 2012).

One way that this plan works is by allowing high school students to begin taking required community college courses, which will count for both high school and college credit, beginning in their junior years. In this way, students graduating high school can immediately enter the state university as juniors, effectively saving themselves two years of college costs (Sanburn, March 9, 2012).

Two planned future elements will also contribute to keeping the costs below $10,000. The first is an interesting use of eBooks as texts for courses in the program. Rather than require students to purchase entire texts, the curriculum will be remixed so that students only need to purchase the portions of texts that they will actually use in the course. Second, the program will employ a competency-based model, where students are allowed to progress when they have mastered a subject, rather than after some arbitrarily determined length of time (Groux, March 8, 2012).

What Can 10k Buy?
Right now, not too much. The only current offering from the State of Texas is a collaborative effort from Texas A&M-San Antonio and area community colleges which allows students to pursue a bachelor’s degree in information technology with a focus on cybersecurity for about $9,700 (Groux, March 8, 2012). However, university officials state that they should have additional sub-10k degrees available by the fall of 2013 (Sanburn, March 9, 2012).

The Texas public system is not the only option though. In a separate effort, Excelsior College in New York announced, in January of 2012, that students can earn a sub-$10,000 bachelor’s degrees in liberal studies with concentrations in psychology, sociology, health professional, or administrative/management studies through a hybrid residential/online program (Groux, March 8, 2012).

While the options are limited at the moment, it seems as if the floodgates could burst at any moment inundating prospective students with a slew of inexpensive degree options. There is obviously a societal interest in seeing this type of effort succeed. Many of the online comments associated with articles about the $10,000 Bachelor’s degrees were hopeful. Some, however, pointed out the drawbacks associated with this effort.

The Drawbacks
There are a few issues with this program that will either work themselves out or that will need to be addressed as the concept spreads to more programs at more schools. Here are a few of the most obvious:

  • Limited options – Currently the options available for students looking to take advantage of this exciting new possibility are extremely limited. Essentially, in the whole country, there are five programs that students could opt to take.
  • Increased enrollment – According to Natalie Solis of Fox News Dallas, University of Texas Regents Chairman Gene Powell suggested that increasing undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent a year for four years would allow the institution to reduce tuition by approximately 50 percent across all University of Texas campuses (May 9, 2011). However, increased enrollment, particularly sudden dramatic increases, can cause growing pains on a campus, particularly if more students are added without adding any faculty, residence halls, dining facilities, etc.
  • Faculty support and operating budgets – If enrollment increases are a necessity to lower costs, this will put increasing pressure on faculty to teach more students, either in each class or through offering more courses. In addition, such an increase could strain the infrastructure of campuses.

Is this the Way of the Future?
There is sufficient pressure from politicians and people in general to force the issue and drive this change forward. Right now, I would say emphatically that "maybe" the $10,000 Bachelor’s degree could become a staple of higher education. But this raises several very important questions about the viability of this model and the effects that it will have both on higher education in general and on society as a whole.

  • Can a quality education be obtained for a discounted price? Are there elements that will be lost by moving to cut costs so dramatically?
  • If increased enrollment is necessary to keep costs down what are the ramifications for the university model as a whole?
  • Will online education become a substantial contributing factor to providing low-cost degrees?
  • Will a proliferation of low-cost degrees further the class system in higher education? If so, will it lead to further social stratification throughout society?

No matter what the long-term effects of this effort are, it should be viewed as a very positive first step in beginning to reign in the high cost of higher education.

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