Texas Tries to Make College Cheap

By Thomas Lindsay

The eyes of Texas are upon university reform once again, and soon the rest of the country may be singing the song of our second largest state.

Earlier this month, Governor Rick Perry announced his education initiatives for the upcoming legislative session. He called for a four-year tuition freeze, outcomes-based funding for institutions, and increased fiscal transparency for students and their parents. Most important, he threw down the gauntlet by renewing his challenge for public colleges and universities to create more $10,000 bachelor’s degree programs.

Of all the governor’s proposed reforms, the $10,000 bachelor’s degree has by far the most revolutionary implications, for Texas and, if successful, America.

In his 2011 State of the State address, the governor challenged public higher education to develop degrees costing no more than $10,000. The call was not issued in a vacuum. Today, total student-loan debt has risen to roughly $1 trillion dollars—an amount necessary to keep up with tuitions that, nationally, have risen 440 percent in the last 25 years. This rate of increase is twice that of health-care costs. In Texas, average tuition at public colleges and universities has increased an average of five percent per year since 1994.

These historic spikes in cost and debt have not gone unnoticed by those paying the bills. A recent national study conducted by the Pew Research Center finds that 57 percent of prospective students believe that a college degree is no longer is worth the cost. Seventy-five percent of respondents in the survey deem college unaffordable. In December 2010, the Texas Public Policy Foundation commissioned a poll that found that 80 percent of Texans think their colleges and universities can be run more efficiently. This growing public alarm is sparking changes in behavior. A recent Sallie Mae study finds that more families are making their decisions about college based on the cost they can afford to pay. For the last two years, the amount families are choosing to pay for college has fallen.

But while students and parents welcomed the governor’s $10,000 degree initiative as a good deed done, it has not gone unpunished by some in the higher-education establishment. The initial criticism when the challenge was issued was that the goal was impossible. After all, at the time, the average Texas public institution’s tuition stood at roughly $27,000, and the prediction was that it would only go higher.

But a year after the governor first issued his challenge, 10 Texas public colleges and universities have launched or announced $10,000 degree programs. This has not quieted the critics. Quite the contrary. Now that the feasibility of these programs has begun to be established, the rejoinder has become, “You get what you pay for.

This critique is unlikely to play in Peoria—or Houston, for that matter. The polling data strongly indicates that the public does not agree that it is getting what it pays for in higher education—this is in fact the very problem that the $10,000 degree attempts to address.

The public’s perception is supported not only by the data on tuition increases and student-loan debt, but also by last year’s landmark national study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift. Adrift employed the Collegiate Learning Assessment to measure what undergraduates actually learn during four years of college. Of students surveyed nationally, 36 percent showed “small or empirically non-existent” gains in “general collegiate skills”—critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills—after four years in college.

What accounts for such a low return on investment for so many students and their families? A 2010 study finds that the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for only 14 hours. Worse, the decline in study hours has not resulted in lower grades. Just the opposite. A study by Rojstaczer and Healy shows that the proportion of A grades awarded has risen dramatically. Today, roughly 43 percent of all letter grades given are A’s, “an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960,” whereas “only about 10 percent of grades awarded are D’s and F’s.”

These statistics suggest that American higher education is going the way of Garrison Keillor’s fictional “Lake Wobegon … where all the children are above average.” The statistics also suggest to reformers that the intended rejoinder offered by the $10,000 degrees’ critics—that “you get what you pay for”—needs to be stood on its head. College students are studying less, yet receiving higher grades. At the same time, they are burdened with massive debt to fund an education in which 36 percent of them will learn little to nothing. The $10,000 degree’s defenders ask whether evidence of a system-wide breakdown could be painted in starker hues. They argue that the threat to American higher education is double-edged: while the cost of college skyrockets, quality is plummeting.

This is why the momentum behind the $10,000 degree initiative appears likely to grow irresistible. Until now, the debate over runaway tuitions has produced calls to action on two fronts: (1) lowering interest rates on student loans to enable students to pay still more in tuitions, and (2) asking taxpayers to pay more in taxes to hike state support for education. But the $10,000 degree stands as a new model. For the first time, the affordability dilemma is being approached through focusing on how institutions might lower costs to students, parents, and taxpayers.

Given the public’s heightened cost-consciousness, it is reasonable to expect that the new availability of $10,000 degree plans will spark expectations for more such programs—at every Texas public college and university and, where feasible, in every field of study. This is the deepest sense in which the $10,000 degree’s critics miss the larger point: The foundations are cracking beneath the feet of traditional higher education in Texas and the rest of the nation. In short order, the Lone Star State’s fledgling $10,000 programs will come to be recognized as the first shots fired in the American people’s revolution of rising expectations for higher education.

Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served as Deputy Chairman and COO of the National Endowment for the Humanities during George W. Bush’s second term.

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