Inside Higher Ed: The $10,000 question

By Steve Kolowich, for Inside Higher Ed

February 14, 2011

Texas prides itself on being a place where everything is bigger. But when it comes to higher education, Governor Rick Perry does not just want the price tag of a four-year bachelor’s degree to be smaller. He wants it to be the smallest.

“Today, I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks,” said Perry on Tuesday in his “State of the State” address.

“Let’s leverage web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal,” he said.

Perry is not the first Republican governor to turn heads by suggesting that colleges could use technology to vastly reduce the cost of degree programmes without sacrificing quality. Last summer, Tim Pawlenty, then the governor of Minnesota, suggested that students should be able to pay $199 per course for “iCollege”. (While Pawlenty was inspired by Steve Jobs, Perry’s muse was rival technology cynosure Bill Gates. At a conference in San Francisco last August, Gates said that a four-year bachelor’s programme should cost $2,000 per year, not $20,000. Accounting for textbooks, Perry’s maths roughly matches Gates’.)

But while Pawlenty appeared to be speaking rhetorically and perhaps a bit in jest – he proposed the idea on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart not from the bully pulpit – Perry is deadly serious. “He wouldn’t be challenging universities to implement it if he didn’t think it could happen,” said the spokeswoman.

So, can it be done?

If so, Texas’ higher-education institutions will have to come up with something nobody else has tried, says Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project, which focuses on costs and productivity in higher education. Even the most efficient online colleges – for-profit companies, which have the advantage of highly centralised governance structures – cannot match that $10,000 end-to-end sticker price, she says.

“It’s a number in search of a model,” says Wellman. “It’s like the [US Congressional] Republicans saying they want $100 billion of budget cuts.”

The book on online education is that while it increases the capacity of classrooms and eliminates the costs associated with buying and maintaining buildings, high-quality online courses are costly and require substantial upfront investment; instructors have reported that teaching well online often is more time-consuming than classroom teaching, and high-quality delivery platforms are expensive. And buying prefab courses from commercial providers, a tack that can cause unrest among faculty, can only defray the cost of delivery to a point. (Several Texas officials said that, since the governor’s pronouncement, they had not heard anyone talk about outsourcing facets of higher education.)

“Over four years, I don’t know how that’s possible,” says Wellman. Even shooting for a $20,000 or $30,000 price tag for all four years would be “ambitious”, she says. “This is going to require alternative delivery and cost structures, but also doing it in a way that keeps spending from going up,” Wellman says. “And that hasn’t happened anywhere, not even in the for-profit sector.”

A parade of higher education leaders through the state house this week largely failed to produce any bright ideas, says State Senator Judith Zaffirini, a Houston Democrat who chairs the senate committee on higher education. The committee heard the testimony of officials from the University of Texas System, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and the community colleges, asking each about the feasibility of the governor’s proposition.

“Nobody answered positively or optimistically,” says Zaffirini.

Pockets of optimism have been reported elsewhere. Some possible leads could come from a handful of community colleges in the state that offer a special bachelor’s degree in applied technology for close to $10,000 over four years. South Texas, Brazosport and Midland community colleges offer four-year applied technology degrees with concentrations in fields such as industrial management, computer and information technology, and technology management. But whether those programmes survive proposed funding cuts in this year’s state budget remains an open question, according to the Texas Tribune. Besides, the idea behind Perry’s call to arms is to offer various degrees for that low, low price, says a spokeswoman for the governor’s office.

Mary Dean Aldridge, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association (and a former instructor at South Texas), criticised Perry as naive. “We aren’t California,” Aldridge said. “We have huge disparities in technology. I taught down in Rio Grande Valley and had kids who not only didn’t have computers, they didn’t have electricity.”

State Senator Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, says bringing down tuition costs at bachelor’s programmes need not involve building online programmes. Alternatives such as awarding college credit during the final year of high school, or creating partnerships that would allow community college students to slide seamlessly into bachelor’s programmes at state universities, are also on the table, Patrick says. Everything is.

Wellman, the Delta Project director, said that even though she thinks the governor’s goal might be criticised as unrealistic, that does not make it irresponsible. Texas currently ranks 43rd among the states for proportion of citizens with any college degree at all. Being the first to lower the cost barrier to four-year degree programmes down to the threshold of four figures might not fix everything, but it could help shock the state’s education system out of inertia.

“I don’t know how they get there,” Wellman says. “But working on a solution to their attainment problem is just what they need to do.”

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