Gov. Rick Perry has been an advocate of keeping the cost of a public university education in Texas low. That’s a noble ambition and one that resonates with a national debate about the cost and inflation in the cost of undergraduate degrees.
There are lots of policy options, too, that can be considered in pursuit of that goal. One notable proposal from the governor in his 2011 State of the State speech was that Texas public universities offer bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000.
His proposal has been interpreted to include the cost of tuition, fees and books for such a degree. And that idea has sparked much commentary.
But what would a student get from a $10,000 degree?
A few small Texas public colleges have in place or will soon start degree programs in a limited number of fields that meet this goal. But no institution in Texas offers bachelor’s degrees across a number of disciplines for this price.
Yet data on college costs nationwide that were released by the U.S. Department of Education on June 12 give us insight on what a $10,000 degree and a college or university that offers one might look like.
On June 12, the department updated its College Affordability and Transparency Center website, which provides prospective college students and their parents comparable cost data for virtually all educational institutions in the nation.
The national average for the one-year cost of tuition and fees toward earning a bachelor’s degree in a four-year public university in 2010-2011 was $6,669 according to the Department of Education’s website.
Yet I will profile one institution in the nation whose four-year costs for such a degree come in at a few dollars below the $10,000 threshold in the Department of Education data.
That institution is Macon State College. The Department of Education database reports that tuition and fees in 2010-2011 at Macon State were $2,354.
That leaves $146 a year for a thrifty student to buy books, and a four-year tab for tuition and fees of $9,416.
You say you’ve never heard of Macon State? It is a fully accredited institution whose main campus is in Macon, Ga.
It enrolls about 5,700 students and offers 18 different bachelor’s degree programs.
Of course, this is a teaching institution and not a research university.
Thus, it has no educational programs that are nationally ranked. Nor does it have any graduate or professional degree programs.
If you doubt Macon State is a representative institution at the $10,000 price level, there are alternatives.
Other public, bachelor’s degree-granting institutions at approximately the same cost include Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with five such programs; Great Basin College in Elko, Nev., with six; and Saint Johns River State College in Orange Park, Fla., with five.
Even the institutions that can mount $10,000 degrees, then, don’t offer many of these programs. And they each offer many more associate degree and certificate programs and could be thought of as technical colleges.
So imagine: The State of Texas could satisfy the governor’s educational ambitions by converting our leading universities to the Macon State College at Austin and the Macon State College at College Station.
Sure, we’d have to ditch most of their research missions, their nationally and internationally reputed faculty, their nationally ranked academic programs, and their graduate and professional programs to keep their costs down, but a $10,000 degree is a doable thing.
We have the Macon States of the nation to thank for indicating exactly what such a degree, and the institution that would offer it, would look like.
Macon State may be good at what it does, especially with the obviously limited resources it has in light of how inexpensive the institution is.
But consider the value of a business degree from Macon State versus the value of one from the nationally ranked business program at the University of Texas or the nationally ranked one at Texas A&M.
Consider the value of a Macon State degree in biology, mathematics, psychology or any other of its bachelor’s degrees compared with those at our flagship campuses.
Indeed, several other major Texas institutions, including the University of Houston and Texas Tech as but two examples, have impressive programs in many areas.
And it is their strong faculties and programs that make the degrees from the latter institutions so attractive to students.
Remember, too, that the variety of their strong programs is an important asset.
A business major at UT or A&M can take electives in a number of academically strong disciplines besides business.
I conclude that the lesson in the preceding observations is that you get what you pay for in higher education, just like in most things.
Hill is an Eppright Professor of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence and the Cullen-McFadden Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University. This piece was first published by the Austin American-Statesman.
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