Minnesota 2020 Journal: A $10,000 College Degree
Friends, Texas Governor Rick Perry has a deal for you! Get your four-year college degree for $10,000. That’s right, friends; only $10,000 gets you a gen-u-ine Texas state university four-year college degree. But, you have to act now. Operators and admissions officers are standing by. Football game tickets are not included.
If this deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Or, at least, the deal offered is quite likely not the package available. The devil is in the details, not the newspaper headlines.
I’m skeptical. After poking around Texas university websites, I’m convinced that Texas’ higher education community is truly trying to figure out how to deliver a four-year college degree for $10,000. Simultaneously, based on Texas college leaders’ statements, I have a sneaking suspicion that a $10,000, four-year college degree costs considerably more than $10,000.
First off, only a handful of colleges are involved. None include Texas’ flagship university, the University of Texas-Austin. A four-year degree from a UT school runs about $30,000; UT-Dallas is higher yet at $44,000. This $10,000 program is playing out at the most accessible levels of Texas higher ed, the community colleges and state universities. But, since having a college degree yields higher average life-time earnings, public investment in education pays off in both increased revenue and reduced social service costs.
Texas is not Minnesota. Minnesota’s two-year community colleges generally cost around $5,000 per year for tuition. Texas’ costs are roughly half of that. For Minnesota’s low-income and first-generation college students, federal and state tuition assistance can bring community college costs down to roughly as little as $1,000 per year out-of-pocket. A college degree, for this student population, creates a transformative path to family and community stability. Except, most Minnesotans are not bottom of the barrel poor. The 2006-2010 median Minnesota household income is $57,000. Financial aid eligibility is, like the family itself, somewhere in the middle. At community college, that means $2,500 per year out-of-pocket.
Texas’ promised $10,000 price tag is not an all cost-inclusive figure. It doesn’t include school fees, books, technology, transportation, housing or food, items that when combined, can parallel tuition and effectively double a degree’s cost. The unspoken caveat is that family bears additional costs. Let’s not pretend that a $20,000 degree can then be had for $10,000.
Taking this close examination one step further, the $10,000 four-degree path offers few options and significant preconditions. Qualifying for the special tuition rate means maintaining a strong minimum GPA and full course loads, drawn from a limited set of major choices. On its own, that’s a good thing but like Perry’s rhetorical flourishes, it’s misleading. Texas’ $10,000 degree program, it turns out, is a narrow educational path for a few rather than a broadly transformative avenue for many.
Lastly, we arrive at another uncomfortable hurdle. How does a college educate a student for ten grand? Cost containment. Pay faculty and staff as little as possible. Conservative policy advocates love this element of the program.
Texas wages are lower than Minnesota wages. That’s no surprise. Consequently, Texas’ higher ed costs are also lower. They charge less because they pay instructors and staff less. As compensation falls, teaching and schooling quality eventually falls as well. Texans may be willing to live with that trade-off but Minnesotans won’t. A school’s degree is only as good as the teaching quality that anchors it.
Ten years ago, in Shenzhen, China, I bought a hand-tailored suit for $100 at the Lo Wu Commercial City shopping mall. A hand-tailored suit in Hong Kong, just 25 miles south, runs $600-$1,000. I was measured for the suit and chose a fabric in about 30 minutes, returning a week later to pick up the final product.
I was giddy, congratulating myself on my good fortune and frugality. A week after that, staring at the suit hanging in my closet, the reality set in. Yes, I had a hand-made suit but it was still a $100 suit made from a fabric that should carry a “no open flame” warning. My Shenzhen suit was a $100 lesson in pretending that quality goods can be purchased cheaply. They can’t. The same holds with education.
Creating an insurmountable educational achievement barrier packaged as expanded educational access is poor public policy. Texas is creating an unsustainable promise. With all the strings attached, as schools struggle and contort to offer a four-year, $10,000 college degree, Texas risks wasting considerable public resources on a gigantic bait-and-switch. Minnesota is well-advised to steer clear of this boondoggle. Instead, let’s properly fund Minnesota’s high quality, high value public colleges and universities.