Delivering the $10,000 College Degree

Governors and other leaders promoting the $10,000 degree are, with the same stroke, addressing two major challenges. They strike a blow against student debt and rising education costs. And they finally deal with the pervasive liberal misuse of higher education.

By Andrew Thomas | June 10, 2013

A recent report from the College Republican National Committee, which claims the Grand Old Party is out of touch with the priorities of young people, is the latest talking point used by establishment Republican leaders to urge jettisoning or toning down conservative planks in the party’s platform. But elected Republican leaders at the state level have found a different approach, one that is far more likely to achieve success in both the short and long run. They have pursued a vision for higher education that will make college far more affordable for young people. Their proposals offer another dividend: challenging an arrogant, bloated academic infrastructure that aggressively inculcates liberalism, at a high price for both college students and the nation.

At the heart of this reform movement is the quest to deliver the “$10,000 college degree.” Republican governors increasingly are embracing this initiative to address public concerns over soaring tuition fees and student debt.

In 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged his state’s colleges and universities to come up with options for delivering a $10,000 degree (including fees for textbooks). To date, 10 institutions have answered the gubernatorial call. These initiatives include efforts to combine high-school and community-college degree credits into a program that gives targeted degrees to students in four or five years. In some cases, this means tailoring the degree programs to meet the needs of employers in state and regional labor markets. For example, students at Texas A&M University at San Antonio can acquire a bachelor’s degree in information technology with an emphasis on information security for $10,026. They graduate into a local economy studded with military and homeland-security agencies and companies in need of such degree-holders.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has followed suit. All 23 of Florida’s state colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees have agreed to create $10,000 degree programs for their students. Scott has said the state’s “goal should be that students do not have to go into debt in order to obtain a degree.” Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin is pursuing the same policy and vision for higher education in the Badger State.

The economics and reasoning behind the $10,000 college degree are straightforward. Cost savings are to be gleaned from greater reliance on online instruction and competency-based assessments. For years, the private sector has shown the way. Online courses have become ubiquitous in higher education with the rise of the University of Phoenix and its competitors.

Competency-based education also contributes to this reduced cost structure. This form of education entails direct assessment of students’ mastery of core competencies, independent of course material and the credit hour. Students are not given credit toward a degree based on “seat time,” or the amount of hours spent in a classroom or auditorium. Rather, they must demonstrate competencies of basic subjects and learning objectives to receive their credits and graduate. Faculty members are available to provide tutoring as necessary, and students proceed at their own rate. In the private sector, Capella recently launched an experimental pilot, and Southern New Hampshire University has started a competency-based stand-alone brand called College for America. The latter offers a low-cost online associate degree in general studies with annual tuition of $2,500.

Degrees and Debt but No Jobs

This “bargain baccalaureate” touted by Republican governors speaks to mounting public frustration at spiraling tuition costs, as well as a job market that seems increasingly indifferent to and saturated with college graduates. For decades, students have amassed debt to pursue college degrees based on the assumption that after graduating, they would earn higher salaries to justify the investment of time and student loans. Yet today, they are graduating into a world in which this presumed tradeoff no longer holds true.

Sixty percent of U.S. college graduates cannot find a full-time job in their chosen profession. An Associated Press analysis of U.S. Labor Department data on college graduates last year found that 54 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 are jobless or underemployed. Their reporters noted, “Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs—waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example—and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.”

Making matters worse, college students run up huge debts to pay for degrees they cannot use. In 2011, 57 percent of students who earned bachelor’s degrees from public four-year colleges graduated with debt. Average student-loan debt has soared 58 percent in just seven years, from $17,233 in 2005 to $27,253 in 2012.

Not surprisingly, these graduates struggle to pay these bills. The default rate on student loans was 9.1 percent in 2011. Student loans taken out shortly after October 2010 have a delinquency rate of 15.1 percent. Forbes magazine noted recently that total student-loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion. This amount of red ink surpasses credit-card debt in the U.S., which comes in at just under $800 billion. But while credit-card debt and auto debt have been shrinking, student-loan debt has not.

American consumers of higher education are catching on that they are being scammed. A Pew Research Center poll last year reported that 57 percent of Americans say colleges fail to provide students with good value for money spent, and 75 percent say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

Exposing the Left’s Misuse of Higher Education

The drive for a $10,000 degree has stirred up opposition from predictable quarters. Professors and other academic leaders appeal to snobbery by deriding this proposal as the “Walmarting of education.” They insist personal interaction between professors and students is superior and worth the extra cost. President Barack Obama and leaders of the Democratic Party have made the fattening of academia a high political priority for decades. Obama has challenged the nation’s universities to increase the number of degrees they grant by using federal funding as an incentive. He has set a goal to boost the country’s college graduation rate to 60 percent by 2020.

But the political self-interest behind these policies is becoming all too obvious. This is particularly so in an age in which most college graduates cannot even find jobs in their areas of specialty to pay off their student loans. Republican leaders responding to this reality find their efforts strike at the heart of the political left’s hidden self-dealing in higher education. By allowing college students to obtain a job-ready degree with minimal interaction with liberal instructors, the $10,000 degree will not serve the interests of the political left.

Most Americans have come to realize that higher education is being used by a liberal education establishment to indoctrinate college students—and, in a cruel and cynical twist, leave them saddled with enormous debt they cannot pay off. According to a Rasmussen poll taken this year, most Americans view full-time college professors as politically liberal. Only one in four thinks most professors favor the values of American society. Put another way, for those Americans who hold an opinion, 62 percent believe most full-time college professors oppose American values.

College professors themselves admit they are a liberal lot. A 2005 study by renowned political science professors Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Neil Nevitte found college faculties were even more left-leaning than originally thought. Some 72 percent of professors describe themselves as liberal, while only 15 percent are conservative. At elite schools, 87 percent of faculty members are liberal and 13 percent are conservative. Things have grown more skewed over time: In the last previous major survey of college faculty, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1984, 39 percent identified themselves as liberal.

This ratio is virtually the reverse of the country as a whole. A Gallup poll last year found that 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative, and 21 percent as liberal.

The entrenched pedagogical bias has changed the country. A 2010 analysis by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute compared five propositions where earning a college degree influences a person’s opinion, arrayed by educational attainment. They found quite simply, “The more degrees a person earns, the more opinion shifts on each of the polarizing propositions.”

For example, for the proposition, “Public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in school,” 57 percent of high-school graduates agreed. That number steadily dropped to 40 percent of college graduates, 30 percent of master’s degree holders, and only 17 percent of Ph.D.’s.

The consequences of reforming higher education could hardly be greater. Governors and other leaders promoting the $10,000 degree are, with the same stroke, addressing two major challenges. They strike a blow against student debt and rising education costs. And they finally deal with the pervasive liberal misuse of higher education to promote a philosophy that, despite the best efforts of academics and their allies, still does not have currency with most Americans.

Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.