A $10K bachelor's degree, with caveats

Tamar Lewin / New York Times News Service /


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With tuition, student loan debt and default rates all spiraling higher, what’s not to love about a $10,000 bachelor’s degree?

In the last two years, two Republican governors — Rick Perry in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida — have challenged their states’ public colleges to develop bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000, less than a third of the average sticker price for tuition and fees at a four-year public college. Perry said he hoped 10 percent of the state’s degrees would meet that goal. Scott sought low-cost degrees in high-demand fields.

Democrats were critical of both announcements, calling the idea a gimmick that would lead to a watered down “Wal-Martization” of higher education. Meanwhile, in California, a Republican legislator has called for a pilot program there.

Now the $10,000 degrees are available in Florida and Texas — but not for many students, not for many majors and not on the flagship campuses. The original goal was that the degrees would use new teaching techniques and technologies to find greater efficiencies; so far, many of the programs are unchanged.

In Florida, the two dozen former community colleges that offer associate and baccalaureate degrees all volunteered to meet the $10,000 challenge, but several are not yet underway. The state universities are not in the program.

Florida’s Broward College, which has 67,000 students, is offering the low-cost baccalaureate in its four smallest bachelor’s programs — middle-school math and science education, information technology, and global trade and logistics — and seeking a total of 80 students. Even that may be a stretch.

To qualify, students must have a grade-point average of at least 3.0 and be Florida residents, in college for the first time and committed to continuous enrollment. But most Broward students drop out before completing a two-year degree. And among those who earn an associate’s degree, many transfer for their final two years or have no interest in the targeted majors.

“This isn’t going to be for the masses,” said J. David Armstrong, Broward’s president. “We can’t afford low-cost degrees for the masses unless we get a lot more funding from the state.”

Broward designed its programs to confront the dropout problem that plagues community colleges nationwide. Posters on campus exhort students to “Finish What You Start,” and to that end, the savings in the affordable degree programs will come in the form of a free last semester.

Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System, said that whatever the numbers, the program represented an important effort to promote college access at a time when college costs are a national concern.

In fact, the Florida system is among the cheapest in the nation, with tuition and fees averaging $13,264 for a four-year degree.

Nationally, tuition and fees at a public university cost in-state students about $9,000 a year, or $36,000 for a four-year degree. Private universities’ average tuition is $30,000 a year, or $120,000 for a degree.

In Texas, 13 institutions offer $10,000 degrees. So far, though, most of them are based on students’ amassing college credits while they are still in high school, or at a community college, whose tuition may not be included in the total. Books are generally not included, either.

“There’s been an evolution,” said Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, acknowledging that the first round of programs did not exactly reach the $10,000 goal.

But that is changing, he said. In partnership with faculty at South Texas College and Texas A&M University-Commerce, the state is building from scratch a degree in organizational leadership that uses online resources and a competency-based approach, in which students get credit for demonstrating what they know rather than how many courses they take.

“It will cost $6,000-$13,000, and be a model to show other institutions that you can create an affordable pathway at your institution,” Chavez said.

But many academic leaders, including Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, still have qualms about the political quest for cheaper degrees.

“It’s at the lower end of the scale, treating higher ed as a commodity, and I think that’s a bad thing, because education is so different from making widgets,” Rawlings said. “It does sound a bit like Wal-Mart.”