What’s the Value of a $10,000 Degree?

The Florida College System’s low-cost, workforce-oriented degrees could serve graduates just as well as a liberal-arts diploma from a public university.

National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Feb. 2, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

Tu­ition in­creases at in­de­pend­ent col­leges have been sus­tained, in part, by a be­lief among af­flu­ent fam­il­ies that high­er prices sig­nal bet­ter qual­ity. If that were true, Al­berto Partida, 43, would be in big trouble. His four-year de­gree from Broward Col­lege, a former com­munity col­lege in South Flor­ida, will cost him less than $10,000. The Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of State Col­leges and Uni­versit­ies has ques­tioned the mar­ket­place cred­ib­il­ity of de­grees offered for $10,000, which have been in­tro­duced by Texas and Flor­ida.

Al­berto Partida is a stu­dent at Broward Col­lege. (Cour­tesy photo)Luck­ily for Partida, em­ploy­ers don’t meas­ure the value of edu­ca­tion that way. Gradu­ates from the Flor­ida Col­lege Sys­tem’s work­force-ori­ented bach­el­or’s de­gree pro­grams earn about $8,000 more the year after gradu­ation than uni­versity gradu­ates, ac­cord­ing to re­search man­dated by the state le­gis­lature. Tu­ition for four-year de­grees from FCS in­sti­tu­tions typ­ic­ally cost $13,000 — less than half the cost of four years at a state uni­versity.

As jobs have be­come more soph­ist­ic­ated, there’s a great­er need for bac­ca­laur­eate de­grees that dir­ectly re­late to the work­force, says Linda Howdy­shell, prov­ost and seni­or vice pres­id­ent for aca­dem­ics and stu­dent suc­cess of Broward Col­lege. At the same time, uni­versity tu­ition has be­come un­af­ford­able for many fam­il­ies. Flor­ida’s ex­per­i­ence sug­gests that lower-cost, less-se­lect­ive path­ways to a bach­el­or’s de­gree can serve stu­dents just as well as four years at a uni­versity — at least when it comes to get­ting a job.

The FCS (formerly the Flor­ida Com­munity Col­lege Sys­tem) has offered a small num­ber of four-year de­grees in fields such as nurs­ing and com­puter en­gin­eer­ing tech­no­logy for about a dec­ade. In Flor­ida, as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree gradu­ates are guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to a state uni­versity, and FCS bac­ca­laur­eate pro­grams hon­or this struc­ture by re­quir­ing stu­dents to com­plete an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree be­fore ap­ply­ing.

So far, un­like uni­versity stu­dents, FCS bach­el­or’s de­gree seekers have skewed to­ward work­ing adults seek­ing a cre­den­tial that will lead to a pro­mo­tion or a new ca­reer. About 42 per­cent of stu­dents have been non­white. FCS in­sti­tu­tions don’t of­fer lib­er­al arts de­grees, and can’t of­fer pro­grams that dir­ectly com­pete with those at nearby uni­versit­ies.

But in pro­grams roughly equi­val­ent to uni­versity ma­jors, FCS gradu­ates do just fine. Busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and ele­ment­ary edu­ca­tion ma­jors at state uni­versit­ies earn about the same their first year out of school as FCS gradu­ates, the re­port found. Re­gistered nurses who gradu­ate from FCS in­sti­tu­tions ac­tu­ally earn about $10,000 more their first year out than their uni­versity-edu­cated peers.

Even gradu­ates of the state flag­ships, Uni­versity of Flor­ida and Flor­ida State Uni­versity, don’t seem to ex­per­i­ence an im­me­di­ate earn­ings boost. The av­er­age gradu­ate who finds work in Flor­ida after gradu­ation ac­tu­ally earns less than the statewide av­er­age, while ow­ing more in stu­dent debt. UF and FSU gradu­ates are more likely, however, to pur­sue gradu­ate school im­me­di­ately or to leave the state.

De­grees from truly brand-name in­sti­tu­tions, like those in the Ivy League, do pay off, says Mark Schneider of the Amer­ic­an In­sti­tutes for Re­search, the au­thor of the Flor­ida re­port and an ex­pert on col­lege-de­gree out­comes. It’s not clear wheth­er that’s due to the qual­ity of an elite edu­ca­tion or be­cause of the tal­ent of stu­dents ac­cep­ted to elite schools.

(Col­lege­Meas­ures.org)But the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an col­lege stu­dents don’t go to Prin­ceton. They earn their de­grees from the cam­puses of a state uni­versity sys­tem, which may not be par­tic­u­larly dif­fer­en­ti­ated by se­lectiv­ity and price with­in the state. In that con­text, what stu­dents study is more im­port­ant than the in­sti­tu­tion they choose. “With very few ex­cep­tions, if you start out with a low-pay­ing job be­cause you’ve got­ten a philo­sophy ma­jor, 10 years later you’re still be­low every­body else,” Schneider says.

“We need to do a bet­ter job of in­form­ing the pub­lic that this isn’t a less­er de­gree,” Howdy­shell says. Broward may not have res­id­ence halls, well­ness cen­ters, or Greek life, but that doesn’t mean classroom in­struc­tion is in­feri­or. The col­lege is known loc­ally for its caring fac­ulty, and many courses al­most ex­actly mir­ror uni­versity course­work.

Partida hopes that, by get­ting a de­gree aligned with work­force needs, he’ll have an easi­er time find­ing work than he did with just a high school dip­loma. The former res­taur­ant own­er and fath­er of two will soon gradu­ate with a bach­el­or of ap­plied sci­ence in sup­ply chain man­age­ment. Ac­cord­ing to Broward’s ana­lys­is of state data, by 2019 there’ll be 3,555 new jobs in the county for people with sup­ply chain man­age­ment ex­pert­ise. The ex­pan­sion of two area ports will drive that in­crease.

Partida likely will pay a whole lot less for his de­gree than $10,000, be­cause he qual­i­fies for sub­stan­tial fin­an­cial aid. At Broward, the guar­an­tee that a de­gree costs no more than $10,000 is struc­tured like a mer­it schol­ar­ship, offered to stu­dents who have good grades and can com­mit to en­rolling full-time. How much Partida pays out of pock­et isn’t go­ing to show up on his tran­script, or his dip­loma.

For par­ents think­ing about their child’s edu­ca­tion, a four-year de­gree from a Flor­ida col­lege is be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly at­tract­ive op­tion. Just look at re­cent sales data from Flor­ida Pre­paid, a state pro­gram fam­il­ies can use to pay for col­lege in ad­vance. For new­born ba­bies, a four-year uni­versity plan cur­rently costs $53,729, al­most three times as much as a four-year FCS de­gree plan.

“It’s gradu­al, but we are see­ing a little bit of an up­tick. Each year that goes by we’re start­ing to see more fam­il­ies pur­chas­ing the four-year Flor­ida Col­lege plan and the 2+2 plan,” says Kev­in Thompson, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Flor­ida Pre­paid. The 2+2 plan com­bines an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree with two years at a state uni­versity.

Last year, 35 per­cent of fam­il­ies chose the uni­versity plan, 25 per­cent chose the FCS plan, and 16 per­cent chose the 2+2 plan. “All three of those plans can get you a four-year de­gree, just dif­fer­ent paths of get­ting there,” Thompson says.

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