Texas Could Offer a Stripped-Down Degree for Just $10,000, Commissioner Says

April 27, 2011

Gov. Rick Perry's call for Texas universities to develop a four-year baccalaureate degree that costs no more than $10,000 isn't as far-fetched as it seems, the state's commissioner of higher education said on Wednesday after a staff member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board presented preliminary strategies for developing a stripped-down degree.

Those strategies, which the commissioner said the coordinating board plans to pursue aggressively, could involve statewide online courses, more opportunities for students to spend their first two years in community colleges, and accelerated and self-paced course formats.

Key to any plan would be faculty support and rigorous standards.

In his State of the State address, in February, the Republican governor urged public college and university leaders to come up with "a bold, Texas-style solution" to the challenge of rising higher-education costs by developing bachelor's degrees that cost no more than $10,000 for four years of tuition, fees, and textbooks.

The low-cost programs should eventually account for at least 10 percent of degrees conferred, Mr. Perry said.

Skeptics have questioned whether that is possible, or even desirable.

The chair of the Faculty Council at the University of Texas at Austin remains unconvinced.

"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 P. Neikirk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, said in an interview on Wednesday. "I don't see how it could be done."

'This Isn't a Crazy Idea'

But Raymund A. Paredes, commissioner of higher education, said finding lower-cost strategies was crucial.

"Almost 50 percent of the students coming through the pipeline are low-income," he said, "and the current pattern of spiraling costs is going to make higher education inaccessible to them."

While the $10,000 ceiling may be ambitious, "I hope we've established that this isn't a crazy idea," he added during a break in the meeting.

Mr. Paredes said the low-cost degrees would not be for everyone and would not replace existing degrees. "We're talking about making sure we have a range of options for young people so they can select a path to a baccalaureate that makes the most sense to them," he said. "We in Texas should embrace the challenge and become a national leader."

Average tuition and fees at a public university in Texas last year was $6,483, for a four-year total $25,932, according to the coordinating board. That doesn't account for annual tuition and fee increases. With books, the total would probably top $30,000, the board members noted.

Students who spend their first two years at a community college before transferring to a university can, in some cases, complete four-year degrees for under $10,000, according to the board. Expanding those "2 plus 2" models could save money.

Universities could also trim costs by teaming up to offer statewide online degree programs in fields that are in high demand, the board suggested. Online courses could also incorporate open-source lecture videos or textbooks developed at other universities.

Stronger student advising through social media and other methods would help students make more efficient use of their time, pass their courses, and graduate within four years, the board noted. Students would also graduate more quickly if universities created different course formats, including semester-long, six-week accelerated, and self-paced asynchronous courses that students could take throughout the year, said Van L. Davis, the program director for the coordinating board who presented the plan.

David Young, the governor's adviser in the state Office of Budget, Planning, and Policy, told the board the $10,000 degree was a bold challenge.

"If we don't hit that dollar figure right on the mark," he said, "at least we can make progress."