Part One: Disruption in Higher Ed and the $10,000 Degree

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Texas A&M University-San Antonio (Photo from

Miriam-SitzHigher education today faces an enormous amount of disruption on multiple fronts. This two-part article takes an in-depth look at those challenges which have catalyzed re-conceptualization, growth, and adaptation in this sphere, and describes an innovative solution being employed by colleges and universities in Texas to close the gap in access to higher education.

A recent report from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, Center on Education and the Workforce, projects that by the year 2020, 66% of all jobs will require some kind of post secondary education and training, up from 59% in 2012.

From Stock.Xchng

(Photo from Stock.Xchng)

The same report predicts that in Texas by the year 2020 just over 27% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Texas currently ranks 30th in the nation for college graduates, with 26.1% of adults over the age of 25 having earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau reported by the San Antonio Business Journal.

The need for more a more highly educated workforce in Texas and across the nation is evident but rising costs, uncertain state funding, and increasingly diverse competition all threaten the ability of traditional institutions of higher education to meet the demands of students and employers. 

Disconcerting Trends in Higher Education

In 2012, Bloomberg reported that over the past 30 years, college tuition and fees have increased by 1,120%, which is “four times faster than the increase in the consumer price index.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Fiscal Year 2011 Tuition and Fees report shows that between the fall of 2003 and the fall of 2011, academic charges (tuition, mandatory fees, and average college and course fees) have risen 90% (see page 44 of the data) due to tuition deregulation, which the Texas Legislature passed (HB 3015) in 2003.

From Stock.Xchng

(Photo from Stock.Xchng)

The Intercultural Development Research Association’s (IDRA) 2010 “San Antonio Education Snapshot,” prepared for Mayor Julian Castro’s office, reported that in Texas the net cost of attending community college represents more than one-third of annual income for low- and middle-income families.

As for state funding, leaders in higher education are hoping to regain lost ground as the current 83rd legislature sets the budget for higher education. Two years ago, nearly $1 billion of funding was cut. This year, bills from the House and the Senate would much less drastically shrink the two-year higher education budget, from $15.1 billion to $14.8 and $14.9 respectively. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has made financial aid one of its priorities for this session, requesting $1.1 billion for Texas Grants and other aid programs.

Dr. Bruce Leslie, Alamo Colleges Chancellor (Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges)

Dr. Bruce Leslie, Alamo Colleges Chancellor
(Photo from

In his recent “Call to Action” message, Dr. Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, identified the expansion of private and for-profit competitors, which can offer more convenient and more cost and time-efficient programs to students without public financial support, as another threat to the traditional systems of college and university education.

“Certainly the current political environment leans toward the private university and for-profit enterprise for the promise of offering high quality and competitive prices, without the necessity of public investment,” Leslie explained. “Therefore, we must deliberately strive to be competitive in this domain and actively adjust to the long-term reduction in state investment.”

How can the increasing demand for skilled, educated workers be met while new barriers emerge daily and, for many, access to education declines?

The $10,000 Degree

Governor Rick Perry (Photograph courtesy of

Governor Rick Perry
(Photo from

“Today, I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks.” Those startling words came from Governor Rick Perry’s mouth just over two years ago, in his 2011 “State of the State” address.

According to, the average annual cost (tuition and fees) of attending a public, four-year institution in Texas is $8,354 for the 2012-2013 school year, up 2% from the 2011-2012 average. Making the unlikely assumption that there will be no increases in tuition and fees, the average public, four-year degree in Texas totals $33,416 – and that’s before books and living expenses.

In the face of such significant adversity, many brick-and-mortar colleges and universities balked at Governor Perry’s charge.

As reported by the National Review, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman Dominic Chavez had this to say: “When the governor issued this challenge two years ago, during his ‘state of higher education’ address in 2011, there was almost universal panning of the idea, [based on a belief] that there’s no way we can do it.”

The challenge drew criticism from many others in higher education leadership, who, as the Houston Chronicle reported, called $10,000 an “artificially set figure” or accused the challenge of diverting attention from the “very real conversation about rising costs that must happen among all the members of the higher-education community.”

Florida Governor Rick Scott (Photo courtesy of

Florida Governor Rick Scott
(Photo from

Some suggested a $10,000 degree might not adequately prepare students, calling to mind the old adage, “you get what you pay for.” In an opinion piece in the New York Times, University of Connecticut professor Gaye Tuchman expressed skepticism at the viability of a $10,000 degree as a real solution to the rising costs of higher education: “Neither a watered-down bachelor’s degree nor two years at a community college seem great alternatives to the current system.”

Criticism aside, the Governor’s grand (or 10 grand) plan drew national attention and catalyzed the efforts of many institutions in Texas and elsewhere. Florida governor Rick Scott issued a similar challenge to state universities in Florida the following year.

To name a few of the first to respond, Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College and the Southwest Texas Junior College (both members of the Texas State University System) announced three $10,000 degree options in 2012: mathematics, chemistry, and biology.

Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College, Eagle Pass Campus (Photo by Keith Carter)

Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College, Eagle Pass Campus
(Photo by Keith Carter, from

Likewise, the University of Texas-Permian Basin also unveiled its $10,000 Texas Science Scholar Program in 2012, offering bachelors of science degrees in chemistry, computer science, geology, information systems, and mathematics. Texas A&M-Commerce has plans to debut a $10,000 Bachelor of Applied Science in Organizational Leadership program in the fall of this year.

The University of Texas-Permian Basin (Photo courtesy of

The University of Texas-Permian Basin
(Photo from

Many of the $10,000 degrees are competency-based rather than focused on credit hours, involve dual-credit community college classes for high school students, require completion within a specific timeframe, and respond to location-specific industry needs.

In San Antonio, Alamo Colleges and Texas A&M University-San Antonio have risen to the challenge.

This is the first half of a two-part article about challenges facing higher education, and an innovative, experimental response to the rising cost of college. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow – a look at the $10,000 degree in San Antonio.


Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on and sells handmade goods on Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]

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12 thoughts on “Part One: Disruption in Higher Ed and the $10,000 Degree

    • Thank you, Lorenzo, and thanks for the shares. There are so many factors to consider when critiquing the current state of things or suggesting new approaches to higher ed. Stay tuned for the second part of this article tomorrow!

  1. Particularly in regard to how these degrees will “respond to location-specific industry needs.” I.e., “you can get a cheap degree if you go to work in the oil fields”?

    • Hey Jens, really good questions. Dom Chavez is director of the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board, and as the Atlantic reported at the end of last year, he explained that “education officials try to identify key components of the regional market and tailor their programs toward employers’ needs,” making it easier for graduates to get local jobs. So to an extent, this might mean that if you’re in a place where job growth is booming in petroleum production, then the $10k degree options available to you will be tailored to fill that need.

      In Florida, where Governor Rick Scott followed Perry’s lead calling for affordable degrees, there’s a BS in optics and photonics. In 2012, Scott said that graduates of that program “will serve an important and currently unmet need in the photonics industry in Florida.”

      Further, it was an industry need, specifically that of Lockheed Martin for skilled workers to replace their employees reaching retirement age, that served as the impetus the creation of the Alamo Academies, which were around before the $10k degree programs and are quite successful. (Here’s the Atlantic article all about it.)

      Now this is really a whole other can of worms, but a worthwhile one, I think. The Georgetown Public Policy Institute report that I referenced at the beginning of this article was primarily focused on the fact that the average number of jobs that will require postsecondary education by 2020 in the southern US (including Texas) is lower than the national average. The south, according to this report, is in danger of being stuck in a low-wage/low-skill equilibrium, which requires careful coordination to overcome.

      If a state focuses on creating high-skill/high-paying jobs without giving attention to improving education, the new jobs will go to skilled out-of-state workers. On the other hand, if a state puts all its efforts into improving education without creating good, new jobs, massive brain drain is bound to occur as those more highly educated people leave the state for better opportunities.

      The report concludes by saying that education is one of the most critical tools going forward for the south to employ as it tries to escape the “low-skill trap.” It seems to me that focusing on educating a workforce in areas where there are definitely local opportunities, like these $10k degree programs aim to do, might be an effective way of achieving that education/job balance, and avoiding the problems I described in the previous paragraph.

      Anyway, it’s an interesting report. Here’s the executive summary for a quick synopsis.

      What do you think? Great comments, thanks for reading!

  2. There are $4000 to $8000 alternatives to traditional education that usually comes in the form of workshops and academies. The Code Academy in New York City (Programming Education), Starter League in Chicago (Programming), and the Volta Collaborative here in San Antonio (Design Education). There are many more and they are a cost efficient and fast paced alternative to traditional educational that leaves the bloat of a full fledged faculty, staff and extra real estate behind.

    • Hey David, your points are good ones. Academies like those you named (and others such as Geekdom’s “Open Cloud Academy”) and certificate programs are dramatically increasing in importance and proving to be competitive alternatives to traditional postsecondary educational venues. They’re cost- and time-efficient like you said, and today certificates are the second most common postsecondary award, superseding both the associate’s and master’s degree.

      I’ll again cite the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, which released a report on the growing significance of certificates called “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees.” It states that between 1980 and 2012, certificates have grown from 6% to 22% of postsecondary credentials to be awarded, and their other report that I referenced at the beginning of this article projects that 24% of jobs in 2020 will require more than high school but less than an associate’s degree.

      The “Certificates” report also found that on average, people with certificates earn 20% more than high school-educated workers. Those with college degrees earn more than on average than people with certificates, BUT many of those with certificates do earn more than workers with associate’s degrees and some even earn more than workers with bachelor’s degrees. (Male certificate holders earn more than 40% of men with associate’s degrees and female certificate holders earn more than 34% of women with associate’s degrees; both men and women with certificates earn more than 24% of those with bachelor’s degrees.)

      The McGraw-Hill Research Foundation released a white paper in 2012 all about portable, stackable credentials. The paper talks about how to address the growing demand in the global job market for workers with mid- and high-level technical skills through greater collaboration between business and education, and through acceptance of the fact that legitimate higher education may be comprised of a mix of certificates, certifications, post-secondary degrees, licenses, and credentials.

      The authors’ conclusion is clear: “As a nation, we need to recognize and embrace that there are essentially ‘two noble paths’ to family sustaining income, and both involve post-secondary education: portable, stackable industry-recognized credentials and/or a traditional college degree.”

      Both the full white paper and a good summary are available online.

      Thanks for your consistently relevant comments, David!

  3. I didn’t mention the Open Cloud Academy because it seems as though Rackspace is still developing the program.

  4. Hey Miriam,
    Great article, but I’d add one piece of perspective: if we already have 26% of adults with a bachelor’s degree, and (according to estimates by the same Georgetown shop that produced the “Certificates” study) the long-term 4-year-degree requirement for the country as a whole will be in the 30-35% range, the amount of ground we have to make up on the bachelor’s degree front is not huge. However, the jobs requiring 1-2 years post-college (some of them certificate-level, some associate’s degree) will increase to perhaps 45% of the workforce. Seen through that lens, the $10,000 bachelor’s degree is, I fear, a distraction from the more urgent task of getting many more young people into certificate and associate’s degree programs. “College for all” is a fine slogan, but we need much more emphasis on the less-than-bachelor’s versions of “college” if we’re to create the workforce the 21st-century economy needs.

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