We have reached a point in this country where the issue of the affordability of college now transcends the usual gulf between Democrats and Republicans, the liberals and conservatives. Across the political and ideological spectrum — from President Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, to Texas Governor Rick Perry, a conservative Republican — all are agreed the past quarter-century’s 440 percent jump in tuition nationwide cannot be sustained. No more sustainable, all agree, is the now $1 trillion-plus of debt students have amassed in an effort to keep pace with tuition inflation.
The question is what to do about it, that is, how to create highly-accessible, low-cost degree programs.
In the last two years, beginning in the Lone Star state, a movement has arisen to develop four-year degrees that cost no more than a total of $10,000, including not only tuition but also fees and books. First launched as a bully-pulpit challenge by Rick Perry in his 2011 State of the State Address, it has led to the creation of at least 13 such programs in Texas. Florida, Oklahoma and California have taken notice of the Texas initiative and are now pursuing something similar in their respective states. Just this week, I was contacted by a state representative in Oregon seeking guidance on how to carry the program there.
Do these early developments presage a nationwide $10,000-degree movement? If so, what form is it likely to take? Governor Perry’s vision animating his challenge to public colleges and universities is to leverage online-learning technology and competency-based programs. He was careful to clarify he does not expect all degrees to meet this price point, asking only that 10 percent of all diplomas earned carry the $10,000 charge.
But where did the precise amount of $10,000 come from, and can it be replicated nationwide? Perry’s challenge drew from a speech by Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. Gates opined that the economies offered by web-based technology would make it possible to offer a year of online college for $2,000. Perry multiplied this number by four years, totaling $8,000, and then added $2,000 for fees and books, resulting in the sum of $10,000. Thus configured, this price structure is not state specific and, therefore, there is no reason why the same economies could not be enjoyed by every state —indeed, by every country.
When the degree was first proposed, its opponents in Texas claimed that reaching the price was impossible. Their skepticism was not without reason as the average public four-year tuition in the state at the time was roughly $27,000, and prices promised only to go higher in the future. But, one year later, a number of schools began to implement the vision. The critics’ fallback rejoinder then became, “You get what you pay for,” that is, that such degrees buy affordability at the price of education quality. So, the question now becomes, “If the $10,000 degree is in fact possible and scalable, is it desirable?”
The you-get-what-you-pay-for critique is called into question by a 2010 Department of Education meta-analysis of 44 separate studies comparing online learning with the traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom setting. The study found when online learning is combined with traditional classroom learning (the combination is called “blending learning”), the learning outcomes are superior. The study concludes, “In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches.”  This superiority can be expected to increase with time, because enhancement of the interactivity of online materials is advancing rapidly. Online courses no longer consist merely of watching a lecture on your computer. Instead, they can now be made to recognize the student’s learning style as well as strengths and weaknesses with the material, and to adjust accordingly to the pace and aptitude of each learner. In this sense, proponents argue online learning is become more “student-centered” than much of traditional classroom teaching.
But what of those college courses that require face-to-face interaction, for example, discussion-intensive seminars in the humanities, which intentionally limit class size to less than 25 students in order to foster a genuine community of aspiring learners? As someone who taught precisely such classes for two decades (I taught political philosophy), I recognize online learning alone cannot fully replicate this experience. But we would be wrong to compare this classroom setting with online courses, for this does not describe the reality of undergraduate instruction at public colleges and universities. I recently asked a University of Texas-Austin official how many courses the average student takes in four years that consist of small, intensive-discussion seminars. His answer was, “No more than half.” In reality, the bulk of the courses students take in their first two years of college are mass lecture courses, with hundreds of students (laptops in front of them) listening to a professor lecture. The only face-to-face interaction they get is the occasional discussion with the teaching assistant assigned to the professor. In comparison with this, the reality of public higher education, online courses do not suffer. Quite the contrary. In their online courses, students can go back, again and again if need be, over materials they did not pick up in the classroom lecture, and they can chart their progress through the regular evaluations online learning now provides.
In this light, if we were to reconstruct course delivery to capitalize on online courses, using blended learning when needed, universities could come much closer to the $10,000-degree goal than they might have realized previously, and with no loss of quality.
Moreover, even in instances in which a student has neither the time nor the money to enroll in anything but a purely online four-year degree, critics should not look down their noses. To do so ignores the new reality of the college degree-seeking demographic. Today, what have been labeled “non-traditional students” make up the majority of those seeking some form of postsecondary education, be it two- or four-year degrees, or some form of postsecondary certification. Such students are either over the age of 25 and/or work full-time, and/or have families to take care of. For this, the new majority, relocating to a college town and/or attending college full time is not an option. Likely their only ticket to an advanced education is an online, $10,000 degree.
Critics should reflect on this before being so quick to dismiss the $10,000-degree movement. Alternatively, the critics might want to demonstrate their concern over increasing access and affordability by coming up with something better.
Until and unless that happens, the $10,000 degree appears to be an idea whose time has come.
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 Barbara Means, Yukie Toyama, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” U.S. Department of Education, September 2010. Accessed September 19, 2013 at http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf
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