The $10,000 Degree: Backlash to a Generation Crushed by College Debt

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Kathy Sosa art.

"Woman with Nopales," by San Antonio artist Kathy Sosa.

 By Robert Rivard

Texas A&M University-San Antonio celebrates it third birthday on May 23 as a stand-alone university, and for Picasso aficionados, the exhibition of the great artist’s work on display there closes May 20. My own informal survey suggests most San Antonians — even movers and shakers– have yet to visit the campus deep on the city’s Southside. Right now the university is a single, attractive building designed by Kell-Muñoz, and  a whole lot of vision personified by the university’s ebullient president and longtime educator, Dr. Maria Hernandez Ferrier.

But none of that is what put the spotlight on A&M-San Antono Tuesday morning. Gov. Rick Perry and a host of other Republican heavies, including state education officials and Red McCombs showed up to celebrate A&M’s early growth and the governor’s signature push for the $10,000 degree. The idea seems to be gaining traction in the face of soaring higher ed costs in Texas, which ranks 39th nationally for students who receive an associate degree or more after graduating from high school, although many still question whether it puts family finances ahead of individual learning and the larger education experience associated with a four-year college degree.

Texas A&M-San Antonio

Welcome shade from the South Texas sun at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

Perry extolled that university’s new bachelor’s degree in information technology with an emphasis on cybersecurity in partnership with the Alamo Colleges. The cost of the A&M-San Antonio degree has been placed at $9,700.

“This degree plan is an excellent representation of how our education institutions are working together to meet the high demand for skilled graduates in the information technology and security fields,” Dr. Ferrier said , at the original announcement ceremony. “Our students understand the value of a college education, but affordability will always be a critical part of accessibility. This is one of the ways in which Texas A&M-San Antonio is helping our students achieve their goals.”

A key aspect of the program is to enroll high school students in courses that allow them to accumulate college credits prior to graduation. Three local districts — San Antonio, Judson, and Comal — are signed on to participate when the program begins in the Fall 2012 semester.

“The Alamo Colleges are proud that in partnership with A&MSA, we have become the first in Texas to achieve the Governor’s call for a $10,000 degree,” Dr. Leslie said Monday. “We are excited that this degree is in Cyber Security, a highly employable field in San Antonio. We are also proud that our Early College High School and Alamo Academies students, which produced our national CyberPatriot winners, will be the first to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Perry’s visit focused attention on the state’s newest land grant college campus, where nearly 4,000 students are now enrolled. The pride among in the Southside institution is palpable among administrators, faculty and students. In this instance, location is everything. The school is right in the middle of the community it serves.

Two new buildings on the Southside campus have been approved by A&M’s board of regents. Groundbreaking will occur later this year and the buildings will open sometime in 2014. Some officials believe A&M-San Antonio eventually will grow in size  to rough parity in with UTSA, its growth hastened by its convenient location to the population it serves, eventually making San Antonio far and away the city with the most college students enrolled in the state.

Texas Tribune story on March 6 reported on a SXSWEdu panel in Austin on the $10,000 degree, a panel that included Dr. Ferrier and Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie, both front and center on Tuesday. Proponents say the $10,000 degree is ideal for parents unable or unwilling to shoulder heavy debt from college loans that can easily exceed $25,000 for a four-year state school degree and triple or quadruple that for a private university. The affordable degree holds special appeal for students willing to forego the larger social and intellectual  experience of studying at a name brand university in return for the economic opportunity enjoyed by almost everyone with a college degree, regardless of its origin.

The $10,000 degree at Texas A&M-San Antonio

Texas A&M-San Antonio Provost Brent Snow announces $10,000 degree as Dr. Maria Ferrier and Dr. Bruce Leslie look on. (PHoto courtesy of Texas A&M-San Antonio)

Critics, on the other hand, fear the college experience itself will be diminished, with students spending less time in courses taught by learned professors that teach students to think critically and explore new interests. A degree built primarily on affordability, some fear, will create a lower tier of graduates with fewer skills and less value to employers and society. Will jobs await them on such an accelerated graduation schedule in a city where students now typically take six years to compete a degree program? While the full-blown college experience will still be preferred by many, there is no question a growing number of families will opt for speed and affordability as higher ed costs continue to climb.

One of the most widely shared stories published in the New York Times on Sunday was a lengthy indictment of higher education in the state of Ohio, headlined, “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College.” The story catalogs a litany of disillusioned graduates bogged down by college debts far greater than they ever imagined, as many of them struggle to make ends meet as under-employed hourly wage earners in a shaky economy. A companion online debate forum hosted by the Times was posted Monday, with experts exchanging views on how to get control over the $1 trillion-plus student loan debt market, a liability that exceeds all current U.S. credit card debt.

Perry joked about the growing competition among Texas university campuses t market the affordable degree packages, and referenced the $10,000 match and sciences that will be offered at UT-Permian Basin starting in the Fall 2012 semester.

The threat of rain brought the vent indoors where local dignitaries, faculty and students crowded into the lobby near the norms Jaguar painting, the school mascot. Some visitors wandered up to the second floor to enjoy the Picasso exhibit.

"Bullfighters," by Pablo Picasso

"Bullfighters," by Pablo Picasso

The permanent art collection amassed by Ferrier in a very short time is worth its own visit. Works by San Antonio artists Lionel and Kathy Sosa and Joe Villarreal grace the walls of the upper floors of the new building. Here’s a glimpse of three such works on display.

"Playland," by Joe Villarreal

"Playland," by San Antonio artist Joe Villarreal.


Los Kiñenos

"Cuatro Kiñenos," by San Antonio artist Lionel Sosa.


Kathy Sosa art.

"Garden Aviary Azul on My Mind," by San Antonio artist Kathy Sosa.

(Photos by Robert Rivard except for Texas A&M-San Antonio press conference)

8 thoughts on “The $10,000 Degree: Backlash to a Generation Crushed by College Debt

  1. I’ve noticed the talk about this program does not mention who they expect to hire these graduates. The program is going to disappoint everyone if it’s not providing specific, employable skills. I hope this was considered, or the graduates are going to discover that the 50% un-or-under-employment rate is not split evenly between graduates of MIT and small local schools ( ).

    To anyone considering a program like this, talk with people who work, and hire, in the field you expect to join. Hiring managers should be very upfront with what qualifications and skills will get you in the door.

  2. While I applaud efforts to make college education more affordable, I believe the Texas sub-$10,000 degree is going about it the wrong way. Lowering the standards and not providing (or requiring) mentally stimulating interaction with highly qualified faculty and fellow students cheapens the value of the college degree. Additionally, offering primarily degrees in subjects that are not resource-intensive to teach (e.g., business, management, IT, administration, counseling) does far less to benefit San Antonio or the students.

    If these degrees are necessary and in demand, UTSA and TAMU-SA should be able to reach out to local companies (USAA, Rackspace, Valero, SWRI, HEB, etc) and form co-ops, work-study programs, job placement guarantees, internships, etc. that will help students obtain these “affordable” degrees and/or a job that pays well after earning the degree. Instead, I see see these companies recruiting college graduates from other areas that have made huge investments in education, such as Austin, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and Boston. These recruits

    I think it is worth noting that Texas is not investing in expanding nursing school, medical school, science, or engineering degrees at that price point. These degree programs are justifiably expensive due to lab supplies, books, and apprentice-like training…but they prepare students for jobs that are in demand.

    I fear that the $10,000 Texas degree will be seen as a bottom-tier college education – while diluting the value of other Texas degrees. It will saddle students with debt without providing the education and opportunities that they expect. Texas universities should be well-funded by the state and local governments in order to make degrees affordable, not offer a second-rate degree program for people who can’t afford the few Tier-1 institutions in the state. Until Texas investments in it students, it will continue to suffer from “brain drain.”

  3. I have visited the campus and I have to admit, Dr. Ferrier and the rest of her administration are building a campus that UTSA should have tried to do a long time ago. The architecture of the buildings and the Art work around the main building truly represent San Antonio. They have a lot going for them and I feel that they will be an amazing university for Texas.

  4. Sure, it would be nice if access to college education were more equitable, but should that really be our top educational priority? Why don’t these brilliant folks focus on fixing K-12? And particularly the governor … Why doesn’t Mr. Perry work on getting adequate funding for our public schools? Not everyone needs a college degree. We have such a fixation on that, yet there are many examples of individuals who have earned fortunes without the benefit of a college degree. Society would be better served if more people completed high school, and actually learned the material. In fact, the community colleges could better focus on higher learning if so much of their efforts weren’t devoted to GEDs and developmental courses (Non-credit courses which help students catch up on what they should have learned in high school in reading, writing and math.)

    Society as a whole would benefit from having fewer dropouts and social promotees. So let’s let the market system take care of the high cost of college. I think it will eventually, as more and more graduates accumulate years of debt. As this swelling problem becomes more known and publicized, people will begin to pursue other directions. You sited the Times story about the soaring student loan debt … higher than credit card debt. But you didn’t mention that while most other debts have safety valves, there is no escaping a student loan.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. My intent was to spotlight the development of the $10,000 degree program at A&M-San Antonio and get a conversation going. Personally, I use the ‘what about our family” test on such matters. There is no way I would want one of our children to settle for the $10k approach to a college education and experience, emphasis on the latter word. I doubt any of those in leadership positions at centers for higher learning would have achieved that status and success in their own lives with such a degree.

    That said, the tuition debt bomb is going to explode, sooner or later, and the defaults will likely be epidemic. They’re already climbing. It won’t ripple through the economy like the sub-prime crisis or anything else involving he private banking system, but it won’t be pretty.

    Finally, I am mindful that my viewpoint has developed from a position of privilege and that parents facing much harsher economic realities than those my family faces are going to vigorously disagree with me, and I respect that.

  6. FYI from the Harvard Business Review 5/16/12: Despite wage declines in entry-level jobs and steep increases in tuition, college is still a good investment in the U.S.: The earnings premium for a college degree relative to a high school degree has nearly doubled in the past three decades, say Christopher Avery of Harvard University and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia. Government statistics show that the jobless rate is 4.4% for college grads and 7.6% for people who attended college but didn’t achieve bachelors degrees.

  7. Interesting post. I like that you are teasing out ideas about various forms of education models, because the current one is definitely having some issues and bringing alternative solutions is definitely needed.

    MIT’s open course ware project might also be something to discuss….

  8. Pingback: More than a landscape | Art you glad I didn't say banana?

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