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The $10,000 Degree: Fundamentally Changing the Way Universities Do Business

The $10,000 Degree: Fundamentally Changing the Way Universities Do Business
New public attention on access and completion goals are pushing universities to either evolve or fade away.
A college degree can result in higher lifetime earnings and an improved quality of life. Increasingly, employers want employees who have obtained degrees. Compelling reasons for a college education, right?

At the same time, skyrocketing tuition and massive student debt burdens are crushing the higher education hopes of many.

Several state legislatures are frustrated by higher education costs outpacing the consumer price index. Realizing higher education costs are killing opportunities for many would-be students and threatening the quality of life for everyone, they have challenged college leaders to cut costs and improve student outcomes.

With too few exceptions, colleges and universities have yet to heed the call. Many in the higher education community stand by, waiting for the financial crisis to pass, so they can “get back to normal.”

Some states have enacted tuition moratoriums and other limiting policies to prod the serious attention the issue deserves. In 2012, Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged colleges and universities in his state to create a $10,000 degree, a greatly reduced and quantifiable goal to which the academy could strive. The concept struck a chord with a number of other state leaders also looking for dramatic change; the $10,000 degree was picked up by Florida with similar calls for belt-tightening following in other states.

While many remain in denial, elite colleges and universities nationwide have embraced the challenge. By rethinking the status quo and enacting positive changes in educational delivery and measurement, they are bringing innovations to scale to reduce the cost of a degree.

The National Center for Academic Transformation incorporated technology to improve student learning outcomes while taking a chunk out of university costs. They’ve redesigned 156 learning environments at universities coast-to-coast, showing a 72 percent improvement in student learning outcomes while reducing instructional costs by a third.

My institution, Western Governors University, uses an online, faculty-guided, competency-based education model that is especially effective for working adults. The university sustains itself on tuition of about $6,000 annually per student; that rate has remained unchanged for the last six years. The average time to degree is 30 to 36 months. Student and employer satisfaction rates are very high.

Redesign leading to cost reduction was demonstrated by the Georgia Institute of Technology this year with a massive online master’s of science degree in computer science, for about $7,000.

And in Texas, the cradle of the $10,000 degree concept, at least 18 institutions responded to the call for a more affordable bachelor’s degree, using a variety of mechanisms in business and STEM fields, among others.

Despite the need for fundamental change, “chatting critics” equate the focus on cost-cutting costs and increased student attainment levels as a detriment to the academy.

To these colleagues I say:

The reset button has been pushed in this country. We have the choice to either participate in the reshaping of higher education to help more prospective students reach for their aspirations or live in denial.

Most Americans have changed how they do business and manage their personal finances. We must, too. The recession of the last decade spawned more leery consumers and led far too many to question the value of an investment in education.

That’s the importance of the $10,000-degree challenge. It recognizes the need for fundamental change in higher education. Furthermore, it provides a tangible finish line to which the academy may strive.

It’s time we, the leaders of colleges and universities, raise educational attainment levels — not costs.

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