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Should There be a $10,000 College Degree?

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In his 2011 State of the State address Gov. Rick Perry challenged his state colleges and universities to provide a college degree for no more than $10,000 including the cost of textbooks. This was not a new idea. Bill Gates had suggested college tuition should be no more than $2,000 a year, and the States of both California and Florida have followed Texas and called for similar low-cost college degrees.

Why? Well, certainly because of affordability! College costs too much these days, a credit hour cost having skyrocketed from around $170 per hour in the early 1970s to costs of $700 and more per credit hour today. Another reason for more affordable college tuition is accessibility. All students should have access to a college education, and states across the nation need more skilled and educated workers to attract business and fuel their economies.

What would a $10,000 degree look like? First, it should not look like today’s degree reduced in cost after grants and scholarships, supplemented by AP credits, or reduced from a 4-year program to a 3-year program. A $10,000 degree should be the result of institutional reform. Likely a $10,000 degree would be earned through competency accumulation instead of credit accumulation, much of the learning would be online, and the programs would be individualized both in content and duration.

Of course, there are arguments against requiring or regulating college costs. The first argument suggests that a lower-cost degree would change the quality of a degree and limit the benefits of an on-campus environment. However, only about 15% of students today are traditional students who want a 4-year degree starting at graduation from high school. The majority of college students today are over 25, work full time, and/or have families they are supporting. A new kind of student in today’s economy demands a new kind of college experience.

Another argument suggests a $10,000 degree would not allow for quality science training as the sciences require lab and hands-on experience which in turn necessitate college campuses and expensive infrastructure. The answer to this concern is that not all colleges and universities must limit themselves to $10,000 degrees. Gov. Perry suggested only 10% of the state’s post-secondary schools in Texas do so. Therefore, there would certainly still be campuses that would offer science degree and programs. This 10% suggestion also answers the concern that public universities and private colleges would begin to look like trade schools or job corps programs. Again, not all schools would offer $10,000 degrees, but some would.

Which brings us down to yet another argument, that having some schools offering $10,000 degrees and others not would create a two-tier system of lesser-quality schools and higher quality education. This argument might be answered by a question: Would you rather have a diversity of degree offerings or have less access for everyone wanting a college education?

At the very least, Gov. Perry’s idea calls for a rethinking of college offerings and the ways in which all students should be able to acquire a college education.