The $10,000 degree?

The news the other day included a story about a proposal that is currently in the NJ Legislature which would direct all colleges and universities to look into the possibilities of offering a full bachelor’s degree for $10,000. President Waldron was interviewed on NJ Public Television about this issue, and provided a clear description of the possibilities (and pitfalls) of a $10,000 degree. The limits of the medium constrained President Waldron from providing additional details about schools that have explored these types of degrees. The medium of the blog is less constraining, so we can take a few more words to look a little more closely at this idea.

What components make a $10,000 bachelor’s degree at least feasible in terms of time and money? Most of the programs that are proposed include one or more of these elements:

  • Online Education
  • Competency-based learning and assessment
  • Completion of college credits while still in high school
  • Required minimum GPA and required minimum credits per term
  • Little or no deviation from an agreed-upon four year course plan

What is not always so clear is that the $10,000 degree does NOT generally include:

  • Room and board if staying on campus; other living expenses
  • Books and supplies
  • Incidental fees for specific activities

As President Waldron noted, these $10,000 degrees are being tried in pilots, with small and select groups of students. There are few large scale operations, though Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State, and schools in the Texas and Florida system are looking closely at trying to scale these programs to larger audiences.

The impetus for these degrees is, largely, a response to the growing costs of higher education to students and families (costs which, again as President Waldron noted, have been driven by shifts in how public higher education is financed). Less attention, unfortunately, has been paid to the educational components of these types of degrees–in simple terms, we have not really studied nor do we know how educationally effective these types of degrees would be. When educational effectiveness is discussed, it is usually a matter of talking about competency-based learning, with the idea that students should advance in their programs of study based not on credits or seat-time, but on demonstrations of their competency in a subject.

The simple matter of cost is going to continue to drive this discussion. As educators, we need to make sure that we do not let dollars drive all the discussion. There are educational issues that are part of this discussion that we need to explore and research.

There is little disagreement that the financial model of public higher education is fraying, if not already breaking. Let’s make sure that the educational model is not torn apart as we work with new financial models of education.