Chavez added that as online learning gains traction and competency-based assessments get students out of the classroom more quickly, officials may begin to bend the cost curve in higher education. But he acknowledged that “we may never get there.”
Hurley also questioned the quality and marketplace credibility of such a comparatively cheap degree. He pointed to the public perception that a high-quality education is a financial investment, and expressed concerns that potential employers might look at a $10,000 degree as a second-rate education.
“I think that the universities would really have to go out of their way and their graduates would really have to go out of their way to clearly communicate to the employer community that the quality of the degree” is not compromised, Hurley said, adding that employers recognize that “you get what you pay for.”
But some argue that a college degree is no longer worth as much as it once was. A May 2012 study from the Pew Research Center showed that 57 percent of Americans say colleges fail to provide students with good value for money spent, and 75 percent say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. Another recent study that surveyed traditional college students across the country found that after four full years of college, 36 percent of students showed little to no increase in critical-thinking skills.
While the Pew study also pointed out that, despite cost concerns, graduates do see a payoff—adults with degrees believe they earn $20,000 a year more because of it, and 86 percent say their schooling has been a good investment—Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, emphasized that a degree does not go as far in today’s job market.
“I think the market has decided, and parents and students have decided, that a college degree is for the most part overvalued,” Lindsay said. “What we’re getting both in terms of job skills and learning, what you’re giving us isn’t worth more than $10,000.”
The approach that could gain the most traction is one geared toward graduating students with degrees that meet specific needs in the regional labor market. Texas A&M University (San Antonio), for instance, this fall began offering a bachelor’s degree in information technology with an emphasis on information security for just $10,026. Students who achieve this degree will graduate into the San Antonio region’s booming military and homeland-security industry.
Such degrees are “highly aligned with regional state workforce needs,” Chavez said, adding that education officials try to identify key components of the regional market and tailor their programs toward employers’ needs. This way, students who graduate from these programs are more likely to get a local job in a field relevant to their degree.
But if universities do not implement significant cost-efficiency measures, these types of programs may not be sustainable in the long run, according to the College Board’s Jennifer Ma. Despite a push by several states' governors—including Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott—to freeze in-state tuition rates, if state appropriations for education decrease, universities must hike costs to cover the budget gap.
Instead, experts say, states should focus on getting more students to complete their degrees in a timely fashion. Perry has proposed an appropriations process called outcomes-based funding, which ties 10 percent of an institution’s state funding for undergraduate education to the number of degrees it awards. Currently, less than 30 percent of students at four-year Texas institutions graduate in four years.
As for the $10,000 degree initiative, the push “has spurred continued innovation, I would say, more in terms of program delivery … rather than how can we simply cut costs at every corner,” Hurley said, adding that after seeing Texas’s success, other states may begin looking at new ways to offer students a college education. “From that perspective, I think that time will tell, but [Perry’s] call could spur some new ways of delivering college degrees and credentials.”