College on the cheap

Amy Scott Oct 5, 2011

College on the cheap

Amy Scott Oct 5, 2011

TESS VIGELAND: The price of a college degree just keeps on rising at about double the rate of inflation. Student loans now outpace credit card debt,and the value of a degree is the subject of a national debate.

Marketplace has been looking into various efforts to bring down those costs. Today we go to Texas, where Republican Governor Rick Perry has challenged education officials to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. I’m not talking $10,000 a year. Ten thousand dollars total for tuition, books, and fees — everything.

From our Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: The last time you could get a bachelor’s degree for less than $10,000 at say University of Texas at San Antonio was more than 20 years ago. Today, it costs almost four times that: Roughly $39,000 over four years for tuition, fees and books.

Raymond Paredes is commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. He says for a lot of Texans, that’s too much.

Raymond Paredes: Over 50 percent of the students in Texas K-12 schools are classified as being poor. We have to make sure those students have the opportunity to go to college and get a degree.

The Board plans to meet with university provosts and community college officials over the next several months to take on Gov. Perry’s $10,000 challenge.

Some ideas on the table? Have students take most classes online. Or do two years of community college, then finish at a university. Schools could offer a stripped-down degree with fewer electives. Or, Paredes says, let students earn credits faster.

PAREDES: If they work very hard and they can complete a course in six or seven weeks instead of 15, we can accelerate time to degree.

Chris Covo took the traditional path to a college degree. I met him at a Starbucks in Austin recently. He had just finished at Texas State University San Marcos.

CHRIS COVO: I was eligible for every grant in the book, every loan. As much assistance as you can get. Still came out with $30,000 in debt. Pretty scary.

Covo is among those pushing to make college more affordable, as part of a group of young conservatives called America’s Next Impact. He says he got his money’s worth in school. He was student body president. He’s now in grad school in London. But he says students who can’t afford to take on so much debt need a cheaper option.

COVO: Are those students going to be getting the experience I got as student body president, student regent, sitting in office hours with my teachers speaking with them for hours about Socrates? Doubtful. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to get what they need to be successful in a career of their choice.

But will they get what they need? Many educators think the whole Socrates thing is exactly what makes college so valuable. They doubt it’s even possible to offer a high quality degree for just a quarter of what it is now.

PETER FLAWN: In the final analysis you get what you pay for. If you pay $10,000 for a degree, that’s what it’s worth.

Peter Flawn is president emeritus of the University of Texas flagship at Austin. He’s part of a group that formed to fight Rick Perry’s higher ed agenda.

At the same time the state has gutted funding for universities, Perry wants them to be more productive — churning out more degrees for less money. Flawn agrees something has to be done to make college more affordable.

FLAWN: But without sacrificing the quality, because a cheap degree is a cheap degree, and the people who hire college graduates know the difference.

Universities also know the difference. They stand to lose out on tuition if low-price degrees take hold. A few community colleges in the state have come close to the $10,000 mark with a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree.

Beth Hagan is with the Community College Baccalaureate Association. She says community colleges, known for two-year associate’s degrees, are offering more career-focused bachelor’s degrees in fields like nursing and energy management. She says employers love them.

BETH HAGAN: Because they’re applied degrees. They’re not about history or English or some of the traditional liberal arts subjects. They’re about workforce-related programs.

Hagan doubts that a traditional research university — with all that goes on on campus — could offer that same experience for as little as $10,000. But for students looking for a credential to get a job, she says there is an alternative.

In Austin, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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