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What Will $10,000 Get Me?

By Kevin Kiley

$10,000 may not be able to buy as much as it used to, but Texas politicians and higher education administrators think that with a little experimentation it can buy a pretty good bachelor’s degree.

That was the challenge issued by Texas Governor Rick Perry in his February 2011 State of the State address, when he called on the state’s public universities to provide a bachelor’s degree for $10,000 or less (for a full four-year degree, books included), a challenge that was met with both criticism and praise from inside and outside the state. Since his announcement, however, a number of Texas universities have responded to the call, offering a range of $10,000-degree programs and receiving significant public attention in the process.

But while the governor's call led to experimentation, particularly with the pathway to a degree, the result has been mostly niche programs that don’t address the costs of educating students and can’t be broadly replicated. Most of the proposed inexpensive degree programs take advantage of community college and dual-enrollment high school credit – which are cheaper to students than university credit – and are not available to students in most disciplines. This leaves experts questioning whether the much-heralded $10,000-degree programs are really all they are touted to be.

The problem, economists say, is that providing a quality college education is expensive. Until universities start to address cost drivers in higher education – including a highly trained, expensive labor force; a student body that expects certain services; and employers who expect graduates to be trained in specialized technologies – then the chances are minimal that universities can offer quality degrees for most academic disciplines for a cost anywhere close to $10,000.

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