WASHINGTON, February 1 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - When Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged his state’s colleges and universities to come up with an undergraduate degree that would cost just $10,000 back in 2011, the idea was met with open-mouthed skepticism that bordered on the incredulous.
“The average tuition and fees came to $27,000, and it looked like that was only going to go up, so the consensus was, ‘this is impossible.’ Everybody said, ‘this is not going to happen,’” recalled Thomas Lindsay, a former college professor and vice president who is now Director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute.
"I can't imagine we could deliver the same quality of education that we currently do here at the University of Texas at such a price point," Dean Neikirk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, told The Chronicle of Higher Education at the time .
"I don't see how it could be done," he said.
But it did get done.
There are now at least ten colleges in Texas that have announced what’s become known as the “10K-BA,” an undergraduate degree for $10,000. And the idea is catching on nationwide.
Florida Governor Rick Scott challenged schools in his state to accept the “Governor’s $10,000 Degree Challenge” last year, and announced this week that all 23 state colleges in the Florida system have begun work to develop affordable undergraduate degree programs.
“Higher education is key to helping our students succeed in the 21st century economy and to grow jobs in Florida. Our goal should be that students do not have to go into debt in order to obtain a degree,” Scott said.
There are similar efforts in North Carolina, Wisconsin and California.
“There really is a revolution underway,” said Lindsay, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
It’s a direct response to a growing level of dissatisfaction with higher education in the US, he said.
According to figures supplied by the Department of Education, the average tuition for a four-year college degree in the US is estimated to be $30,804, not counting room, board, meals, and books.
A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans felt colleges failed to provide students with a good value for the money spent, and 75 percent said college is too expensive for most people to afford.
“In the last 25 years, tuition has gone up 440 percent across the country. That’s two or three times faster than the rate of inflation, that’s faster than health care, and then you have students who graduate and can’t find a good job, so you’ve got a very dissatisfied public,” Lindsay said.
Texas A&M University at San Antonio has begun a $10,000 program for a degree in Information Technologies, “the lowest tuition in town!” promises a flyer about the new program.
It includes college credit for core classes that are taken while the student is still in high school, a year of classwork at a local, less expensive community college, and then two semesters and a summer at the main campus.
The idea is for students to graduate with a four-year degree and virtually no student loan debt by the age of 20. Total cost for the program: $10,085.
A more typical model for the $10K-BA includes some traditional in-class instruction, a significant number of online courses, and class credit for students who pass the comprehensive exam for a particular course.
In other words, if you already know the material for Math 101, don’t pay the money for a class that will re-teach the same subject. Just take the exam, get the credit, and move on.
Lindsay envisions students who study for the exams using Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Designed for learning, not for credit, universities offer thousands of them for free online.
But critics say online courses are not as credible, that students don’t learn as much when they are not sitting in traditional classrooms, engaged in discussion with a live professor who can explain difficult concepts and challenge them to meet new ideas.
The critics also say you will end up with students who can pass tests but who lose something more fundamental in the process.
“What you have is the legislature wanting to bail on the priority of higher education,” said Tom Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida and president of the United Faculty of Florida, according to Inside Higher Ed, an online education publication.
“You’re going to be awarding degrees that are worthless to people. They’ll have bachelor’s degrees, but they won’t know what they’ve missed until three or four years out of school,” he said.
Arthur Brooks disagrees. He’s the proud owner of a $10,000 undergraduate degree, a former tenured professor at Syracuse University, and the President of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
“I took the same exams… as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater. And the whole degree, including the third-hand books and a sticker for the car, cost me about $10,000 in today’s dollars,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
“I can say with full confidence that my 10K-BA is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility,” he wrote.
For Thomas Lindsay, opportunity is the key.
“We have always viewed a college degree as your ticket to the American degree, but families, especially middle class families, can no longer afford a higher education. They don’t have access to grants and scholarships the lower incomes students can qualify for, and so this is a response to the desperation middle class families are feeling,” he said.
And then he added, “This is the future. This really is the future.”