Texas is experimenting with an initiative to help students and families struggling with sky-high college costs: a bachelor's degree for $10,000, including tuition fees and even textbooks. Under a plan he unveiled in 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Perry has called on institutions in his state to develop options for low-cost undergraduate degrees. The idea was greeted with skepticism at first, but lately, it seems to be gaining traction. If it yields success, it could prompt other states to explore similar, more-innovative ways to cut the cost of education.
Limiting the price tag for a degree to $10,000 is no easy feat. In the 2012-13 academic year, the average annual cost of tuition in Texas at a public four-year institution was $8,354, just slightly lower than the national average of $8,655. The high costs are saddling students with huge debt burdens. Nationally, 57 percent of students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2011 from public four-year colleges graduated with debt, and the average debt per borrower was $23,800—up from $20,100 a decade earlier. By Sept. 30, 2011, 9.1 percent of borrowers who entered repayment in 2009-10 defaulted on their federal student loans, the highest default rate since 1996.
In the Lone Star State, 10 institutions have so far responded to the governor’s call with unique approaches, ranging from a five-year general-degree pipeline that combines high school, community college, and four-year university credits to a program that relies on competency-based assessments to enable students to complete a degree in organizational leadership in as little as 18 months.
At Angelo State University, admissions will begin in January for a four-year interdisciplinary-studies program through which students can combine three separate minors into one bachelor’s degree for an overall cost of $9,974. ASU President Joseph Rallo envisions the program as the perfect fit for an adult who is interested in broadening his skills in order to advance his career, not necessarily a student looking for the traditional college experience.
“The profile that we aim the degree for is the adult student who is interested in a broad degree and at the same time a degree that would be academically rigorous,” Rallo said, adding that students must have an ACT score of 27 or above to enter the program and maintain at least a 3.0 grade-point average to continue.
At the University of Texas (Arlington), the university teamed up with Tarrant County community colleges and school districts to create a program that would allow students to obtain a degree in any field for less than $10,000. Students in their junior and senior years of high school will complete dual credit programs already provided by their school districts in order to earn some college credit. The students will go on to spend about a year at community college before finishing their degree at UT Arlington.
“This program would appeal to the most dedicated, focused students who know from high school that they are willing to work hard to maximize their college investments,” said Kristin Sullivan, assistant vice president for media relations at UT Arlington.
Catherine Frazier, press secretary for Gov. Perry, said the plan aims to make college “a reasonable goal for all Texans” and will help hold higher-education institutions accountable for reining in costs.
Critics doubt that the initiative will help institutions trim their own costs in providing an education, however. Experts worry that reaching the $10,000 goal involves a scholarship process for students and not real savings for the schools themselves in overhead and instruction.
“I question an artificially set benchmark of $10,000,” said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, adding that the discussion of actually containing the costs of education for the institution is “often missing” from such initiatives.
Indeed, officials acknowledge that most of these programs would only reduce the price tag for the student, not the cost to the institution of providing the degree. While select students might pay less overall, institutions must deliver the same faculty, facilities, time, and knowledge they provide to students paying full price for their degrees.
“I would not frame this $10,000 degree challenge as a cost-efficiency measure for higher education,” said Dom Chavez, director of the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board. “It’s a cost-efficiency measure for students and parents.”