Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary
Columnist

A bachelor’s degree for $10,000? Imagine the impact.

My oldest child, Olivia, will be heading to college in two years. So it’s already become college-saving crunch time in our household. As we’ve been putting money away, I’ve become even more passionate about helping other people find ways to cut college expenses. So I’m intrigued by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s proposal to come up with an affordable college degree program. Perry, who’s running for president, has created quite a buzz for a bold — some say unrealistic — higher-education plan.

“I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks,” Perry said during his State of the State remarks this year.

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And just how does he propose that schools offer degrees at a such a discount?

“Let’s leverage Web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal,” Perry said. “Imagine the potential impact on affordability and graduation rates — and the number of skilled workers it would send into our economy.”

Yes, just imagine.

Imagine the financial stress lifted off so many families if they could send their children to school for $2,500 a year, not including room and board.

Some can’t imagine. There’s been lots of chatter that Perry’s plan either won’t work or would lead to a substandard degree. One professor in an online discussion forum for the New York Times said, “Neither a watered-down bachelor’s degree nor two years at a community college seem great alternatives to the current system.”

Aside from an unfair slap to community colleges, I’m more than perturbed that Perry’s idea is being so quickly dismissed by the education establishment. It’s long past time that professionals in higher education — from college presidents to professors — work harder to figure out how to reduce college costs. They can no longer smugly claim that just having a degree is a fast track to high-paying jobs.

And let’s remove the politics from Perry’s challenge. True, he’s now a presidential candidate, and candidates will promise anything, but Perry’s proposal has merit, and it’s something all the candidates should embrace, including President Obama.

“If we can go to the moon, we can have a $10,000 university,” said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a nonprofit research center based in the District.

Vedder and I had a long conversation about Perry’s challenge and the absurdity that so many people have so quickly dismissed it as undoable.

“The culture of higher education is not one to minimize cost to the consumers,” said Vedder, who is also a professor in the department of economics at Ohio University and the author of “Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much.”

Vedder, now in his 47th year of teaching, has become one of the most outspoken critics of soaring college costs.

He also shares my great concern that so many families are going deep into debt trying to help their children get a degree. The conventional wisdom has been that such debt will pay off in the end. But many families are finding that this is not necessarily true: Their children are graduating and not getting jobs, or they’re getting jobs with much lower salaries than they expected.

“The high school/college earnings differential may have stopped growing, so the investment return to college will start falling unless costs are contained,” Vedder wrote in a 2007 research paper.

He has argued then and now that too much college spending is devoted to extras — state-of-the-art recreation facilities, larger university bureaucracies, intercollegiate athletic programs and higher salaries for university personnel — that do little to promote education or economic growth.

“An excellent case can be made that we are over-invested in universities, that too many students attend school, that much of our investment is wasted,” he said.

A growing number of colleges are succeeding at making college affordably accessible, Vedder says. He points to Berea College, a liberal arts college in Kentucky that awards four-year tuition scholarships to all its students, who because of financial circumstances cannot otherwise afford to attend.

If Berea figured this out — and did so years ago — other schools can, too. Can we have a $10,000 degree?

I certainly hope Perry’s idea will snowball into some creative ways to cut costs while not cutting quality. We have got to figure out a way to make a higher education more affordable. If we don’t, it won’t be just low-income students we are pricing out.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or by e-mail: . Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

 
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