Texas Has a $10,000 Degree — But for How Long?

The idea of a $10,000 college degree began with Bill Gates. In August, at a conference in Lake Tahoe, Ca., the Microsoft founder told an audience that technology could bring down the cost of college degrees. “Not just to $20,000,” he said, “but to $2,000.” Gates’ remarks struck a chord with Gov. Rick Perry, who read about his appearance in news accounts.

Fast forward to Tuesday’s State of the State address, in which Perry issued a bold challenge to the “brightest minds” at Texas universities: Develop a bachelor’s degree costing no more than $10,000, books included.

As it turns out, there already is a $10,000 bachelor’s degree available in Texas — and the Legislature may be on the verge of eliminating it.

Shirley Reed, the president of South Texas College, a community college in the Rio Grande Valley, was at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon to testify before the Senate Finance Committee. She heard Perry and thought, “My goodness. This is precisely what we’re doing.”

South Texas College is one of three community colleges in Texas — the others are Brazosport College and Midland College — authorized to offer a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness bachelor’s degree, designed for students who already have an Associate of Applied Science — a technical degree that often doesn’t transfer to traditional universities. It can be leveraged into middle management positions or even the pursuit of a master’s degree. And the cost tends to be in the $10,000 range.

 

“It’s probably the most cost-effective, affordable bachelor’s degree you could have in Texas,” Reed says.

At Brazosport, for example, four years' worth of tuition and fees for a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree comes to $9,168. To be fair, that does not include books. Ken Tasa, the dean of educational programs and services at Brazosport, estimates that eight semesters' worth of brand-new textbooks could run a tab as high as $4,000, tipping the bill significantly over Perry’s $10,000 limit. Between the internet and the campus library, however, there are ways of skirting those costs.

So, mission accomplished? Not so fast — the Bachelor of Applied Technology program is highly controversial and may not be around much longer.

The House’s base budget not only eliminates all funding for Brazosport, it eliminates funding for all of the state’s Bachelor of Applied Technology programs. And even if that were not the case, efforts to expand the program are likely to be met with strong resistance. The opposition comes from those who believe the role of community colleges is strictly to provide affordable, two-year associate's degrees, and from universities that want to protect their turf.

“Change is difficult,” Reed says. “Some people, when you’re getting out of your little box, they want to make sure you get back in your little box.”

In her testimony on Tuesday, as she touted her institution’s Bachelor of Applied Technology, Reed was careful to assure the committee that South Texas College, in its efforts to offer four-year degrees, has not lost sight of its mission or its commitment to developmental education. But, she says, that might not be enough to overcome resistance by groups like the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Legislative Budget Board and traditional universities.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes says the evidence at the national level suggests that as community colleges offer more bachelor’s degrees, their costs begin to resemble those of universities. 

“I don’t think simply saying ‘well, we’ll have community colleges do more’ will bring down costs,” Paredes says. “The likelihood is that you’d see costs going the other way.”

 

Still, some legislators are looking to expand the authority to offer four-year options to other two-year colleges. State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, filed a bill that would open the door for his local community colleges to begin offering a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree in fire science.

Alternatively, a number of community colleges around the state that are not authorized to bestow these degrees partner with nearby colleges and universities to help students convert their associate’s degrees into bachelor’s, but that comes with a $10,000-busting, university-level price tag for the degree’s final two years.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, says four-year colleges and universities are not eager to cede their role for the sake of dropping prices. “Obviously there are some community colleges that would love to be four-year institutions,” she says. “But to expand this from three community colleges, I think you’ll have a big conflict with current colleges and universities.”

As for how Perry is hoping to get his $10,000 degree, she says she is still scratching her head. “I just assumed that meant it was all online,” she says.

Perry made slightly more specific recommendations last week in a letter to university presidents. “Programs may include online and blended classes; classes at no-frills campuses; credit for prior learning, dual credit and Advanced Placement; and open-source textbooks,” he wrote.

Are Texas universities ready for such re-imagining? “There may be a way to do it,” says Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, “perhaps at a community college or a small regional college. Your emerging research universities aren’t going to do it, and your national research universities probably can’t do it.”

According to the most recent data available, from fall 2009, the state’s most affordable university is Texas A&M University-Texarkana. Assuming a standard pace of 15-hour semesters, the tuition and fees there will total $18,584 over four years (assuming tuition costs don’t rise) — roughly double the Bachelor of Applied Technology at Brazosport. That also doesn’t include the cost of books.

Across the state, the average four-year total is $26,584. But they are offering courses in broader — as Reed says, “more theoretical” — disciplines. Reed says the highly specified offerings of the bachelor's degrees at her institution are “not for everyone.” But for those that are interested, she says, “we can do it, and we can do it very, very well.”

Of course, Perry wants more than just three or four schools offering a small handful of narrowly focused degrees. His letter to the university presidents indicated that he wanted scalable programs to the extent that 10 percent of their degrees ultimately follow the $10,000 model. Of the programs at Brazosport, Midland and South Texas, Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier says, “That is a great thing, and something that would be great for more community colleges to offer, but the goal still stands for implementing this at the university level.”

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