The $10,000 bachelor’s degree: gimmick or real?

With the cost of college at record highs, the governors of Texas and Florida (Rick Perry and Rick Scott, respectively) have challenged their state’s public higher education systems to come up with a bachelor’s degree program that costs no more than $10,000. Perry put out the call in 2011, and 10 colleges that enroll about 10 percent of undergraduates at public universities in the state have responded ( though not the flagship University of Texas at Austin), according to this story in the Wall Street Journal. Scott just issued his challenge and a few schools have already responded, according to this story in the Orlando Sentinel. Does the proposal make sense? I asked Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007 and now a professor at the university’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, to make sense of the proposal.

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has just challenged his state’s community and state colleges to develop a four-year degree priced at no more than $10,000, a sum far below the current $13,300 and even further below the tuition at many other states’ schools.  I am not aware of any justification for the suggested new price tag.  If it is as unsupported as it appears, then how about asking for an immediate 10% improvement on his current proposal.  Can someone design a degree for $9,000, or even $8,500? 

 If you continue this line of thinking, it is inevitable that one may ask for a free college education for everyone.  To quote my grandfather, take advantage of the marketplace and buy “three for $2, two for $1 and get one for nothing.”  

 To be serious for a moment, my friend Dr. John Ebersole, the president of Excelsior College, a not-for-profit online distance- learning institution in Albany, NY, assures me that he is capable of providing an accredited BA degree for $10,000; and my colleague Shai Reshef, the president of The University of the People (on whose board I sit) is currently offering a non-profit tuition-free online degree dedicated to the democratization of higher education world wide.  So, while the governor’s idea is radical at first blush, it is not perhaps impossible.

 It is however improbable and impractical in any sustained or scalable way to widely carry out the Scott plan.  You can do these sorts of innovative things in small ways.  For example, Reshef relies on a lot of voluntary input.  In other words, he doesn’t pay most of the school’s faculty; they do their teaching out of a spirit of good-hearted generosity.  Experience tells me that type of contributed labor only goes so far.  Isolated exceptions are by definition rare and not part of the normative landscape. We can not safely generalize from these particulars.

 Moreover, the $10,000 Scott model relies on using a body of knowledge produced by other (more expensive) institutions that are actually footing the bill for people, facilities and infrastructure (researchers, laboratories, libraries and studios, etc.) in which the substance of curriculum is produced.   Not all institutions of higher learning require fancy multi-building campuses in order to deliver their educational services.  But they all need someplace to hang their hats: basic offices – up front and back room; and classroom and lecture spaces  – onsite and virtual.                                                            

Some disciplines are more easily proffered by this model than are others.  While it is theoretically possible to teach the hard sciences online without extensive facilities, in the long run in order to teach chemistry or physics it is useful to have lab equipment and workspace.  Knowledge takes investment.  Even Sir Isaac Newton needed someone to have planted an apple tree.  Is the governor paying for facilities from another budget account or is he taking it all from the $10,000?  Sooner or later you starve to death on stone soup.

 People like to please their governors so no doubt there will be college presidents in Florida who will give their best efforts to deliver a degree for $10,000.  In the end there is a difference between mass production and hand tailoring.  One is utilitarian and serviceable with little room for individuality and the other has something called quality.  There is probably room in the marketplace for both.  Governor Scott’s plan strips education down to the barebones while relying on others to produce the muscle. 

 Colleges can be run more efficiently and more effectively.  But to pick an arbitrary $10,000 number and use it as a north star for academic planning is more gimmick than pedagogy.  Over the next decade, there will be radical changes in the way undergraduate education is delivered at all academic institutions from Florida community colleges to elite ivy-league campuses.

 I believe, for example, universities will soon rediscover 12-month years and restore May-June-July and August to their calendars.  Likewise, they will also find seven-day weeks and restore Fridays and half-day Saturdays to the student work schedule.  At non-heavily research-oriented universities, teaching obligations will be enhanced.  Tenure may be tweaked, reinventing the concept of “life-time contracts” into some other equitable if not more modest form.  More faculty may be asked to eat what they kill, particularly in the professions, where engineers and law professors will be expected to earn a greater portion of their annual income through practice.  This may be harder in some disciplines like philosophy or medieval French history but perhaps not.  Colleges and universities are creative environments that cure disease, forecast trends, analyze poetry and make beautiful things. Now is the time to turn that creativity inward toward the repurposing of how higher education transmits learning. 

 Let’s be cautious in radically altering a model that has served us well for hundreds of years before we fully understand the implications of the proposed changes. Electronic technologies arguably are having an impact even more widespread than did the centuries old invention of movable type.  But the lessons of distance learning, for-profit institutions and MOOCs (massive open online courses) are not yet fully explored, nor have their economic models proven their effectiveness.   Discovery and creation cannot be rushed.  Quality education is a mixture of the tried, true and proven along side cutting edge innovation. 

 While the governor’s $10,000 concept isn’t crazy, his proposal may be premature.  Still, it has gotten us talking and that is not all bad.  

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 30, 2012