What happened to the $10,000 degree?

Miami Dade College uses a merit scholarship program to hold costs for its baccalaureate programs under $10,000 for qualifying students. (Photo: MDC)

Rick Perry had just been elected to a third term as governor of Texas when he issued a call to the state’s public colleges and universities in a 2011 speech.

“Today, I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks,” Perry said.

The next year, former Florida Gov. Rick Scott made a similar ask to colleges in his state.

The “$10,000-degree challenge,” as both Republican governors called it, attracted strong interest in higher education circles. Advocates saw it as a way to rein in costs and encourage innovation. Critics regarded it as a formula for dumbing down a college education.

In both states, institutions struggled with the assignment. Legislatures in Texas and Florida never came through with additional state funding to get the new degree programs started. Those that were designed were narrowly crafted, often requiring students to decide on a particular field and pick up college credits while still in high school.

But while the appeal of the $10,000 degree as a political buzzword has faded, the concept still exists in Texas, Florida and elsewhere – even if the price has inflated a bit.

“My personal feeling is that it helped move things along, to have the governor say he wanted us as a state to have more affordable baccalaureate programs,” said Mike Midgley, vice president of instruction at Austin Community College (ACC).

Market forces helped too, Midgley said. Austin’s health care and tech industries have been clamoring for affordable programs to equip students with bachelor’s degrees.

Three options

ACC students will soon have three options for earning a bachelor’s degree for around $10,000. Two of those became possible when the Texas legislature in 2017 passed a bill expanding the ability of community colleges to offer baccalaureates in high-demand fields. ACC went to work designing bachelor’s programs in nursing and computer information technology.

The third option is a bachelor of applied technology degree in computers and information through the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate program. Known as TAB, the program is the most tangible outgrowth of Perry’s $10,000-degree challenge. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board worked with institutions to design competency-based bachelor-level programs that could be completed in three years or sooner.

TAB programs don’t specify that costs for students must be held to $10,000 – although often they are. Schools are required to offer the degrees at less than half the price of a traditional baccalaureate program at Texas’ public universities, which currently averages about $9,000 a year.

The 13 TAB programs created so far are proving popular among service members, students returning to school after a hiatus and adult learners in general, said Heather Marsh, executive director of the Texas Higher Education Foundation, which supports the coordinating board and its initiatives.

Marsh said backers had to overcome some resistance to get the programs started.

“We were sitting on the funding for awhile before we could convince faculty that this was a good idea,” she said.

Many of the programs are just underway, and officials did not have a count of the number of students enrolled in TAB programs statewide.

Part of state policy

In Florida, the follow up to Scott’s $10,000-degree challenge fell to the Florida College System – formerly named community colleges that now offer selected bachelor programs in high-demand fields in addition to associate degrees.

“Governor Scott delivered a very strong message to the colleges to get on board,” said Julie Alexander, vice provost for academic affairs at Miami Dade College (MDC).

A four-year degree in the system was already the lowest in the nation – about $13,000 for tuition and fees – when Scott issued his challenge. College leaders at first attempted to meet the $10,000 test by creating narrow degree pathways that turned out to have limited student appeal.

But the goal continues to be part of state policy, and schools have found more flexible ways to meet it. The Florida Department of Education’s most current data shows more than 15,000 students enrolled in programs with a $ 10,000-degree option – although the report stated the average cost has increased to $13,826.

MDC uses a merit scholarship program to hold costs for its baccalaureate programs under $10,000 for some students. New graduates of local high schools who qualify based on grades and attend college full time pay no tuition for the first two years, Alexander said.

The scholarship, which is funded mostly by local donors, was in place when Scott issued his challenge. “Since then we’ve expanded it,” Alexander said.

Currently, 446 MDC students are seeking $10,000 degrees through the scholarship route.

The beat goes on

Opinions on the success of the $10,000-degree challenges tend to fall along political lines. Allies of the Republican governors contend they spurred innovation and affordable options. Others say programs marketed as $10,000-degree options are really just a rebranding of initiatives already in the works or prompted by calls from employers.

Although the slow trajectory of the Texas and Florida experiments may have discouraged other governors from issuing their own challenges, the appeal of a $10,000 degree has not disappeared.

Educators in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 2017 announced a route to a $10,000 degree, beginning with high school students earning dual credits from Prince George’s Community College and finally earning degrees from the University of Maryland University College.

And in North Carolina, the chancellor of Fayetteville State University (FSU) last year touted a partnership with the state’s community colleges that could lead to bachelor’s degrees at a cost of less than $10,000.

The program, which leans heavily on online courses, is aimed at making college more accessible to the state’s large rural population, and to provide an affordable alternative to for-profit colleges, said FSU Vice Chancellor Jon Young.

Students in North Carolina seem to like the sound of a $10,000 degree. Close to 100 of them have completed “intent to enroll” applications, Young said.

About the Author

Barbara Shelly
is a higher education writer in Kansas City, Missouri.