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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Perry's call for $10,000 bachelor's degrees stumps educators

Larger message is the need to be creative and shave costs, higher education commissioner says

When Gov. Rick Perry challenged the state's public institutions of higher learning this week to develop bachelor's degree programs costing no more than $10,000, including textbooks, Mike McKinney was stumped.

"My answer is I have no idea how," McKinney, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, told the Senate Finance Committee. "I'm not going to say that it can't be done."

Tuition, fees and books for four years average $31,696 at public universities in Texas, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board. Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College is the cheapest, at $17,532.

The governor's call for low-cost degrees comes as legislative budget writers and the governor himself have proposed deep cuts in higher education funding — cuts that would put pressure on governing boards to raise tuition, not lower it.

But officials of some university systems — whose governing boards are fully populated by Perry appointees — nevertheless struck an upbeat tone, or at least a neutral one. As McKinney, a former Perry chief of staff, put it: "If it can be figured out, we've got the faculty that can figure it out."

A spokesman for the University of Texas System said, "We look forward to reviewing details of the governor's proposal."

Perry was inspired by comments that Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corp. and co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, made at a conference in California, said Catherine Frazier , a spokeswoman. A video posted on YouTube captured some of Gates' remarks.

"College, except for the parties, needs to be less place-based," he said. Web-based instruction and other technology could drive the price down to $2,000 a year, he said.

Perry wrote to university regents last week , urging them to develop $10,000 degree programs and to scale up those programs so at least 10 percent of the sheepskins awarded by their schools are based on this approach. He said programs could include online classes, classes at no-frills campuses, credit for prior learning, credit for Advanced Placement classes in high school and other elements.

"I don't know whether the $10,000 figure is practical reality or not," said Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner. "I interpret the governor's remarks as a call to be creative and find solutions to the spiraling costs of higher education."

Three community colleges — Midland College, Brazosport College in Lake Jackson and South Texas College in McAllen — offer a bachelor's in applied technology and come closest to Perry's goal, with tuition and fees for four years ranging from $9,168 to $10,440 and books adding anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, school officials say. Those three schools would see their state funding for bachelor's degrees end under the House version of the proposed 2012-13 state budget, although South Texas College President Shirley Reed said she's "very optimistic" that won't happen.

Could the cost be reduced to meet the governor's goal? "You can do it, but there's no free lunch," Reed said. "One option is to reduce the number of hours in degree programs. But will the students actually have the competencies that the employer is looking for?"

Shifting instruction online wouldn't save money, she said. The school offers 13 associate degree programs online but has found costs to be pretty much the same as the classroom version because faculty members — whose salaries are the largest expense — must still be actively involved, developing courses, responding to students' e-mails, engaging in online discussions and evaluating student work.

Tuition, fees and books aren't the only costs of an education, of course. Room and board, transportation and personal expenses add considerable sums. At UT-Austin, the total cost of a bachelor's degree averages $96,664, assuming a student finishes in four years, according to coordinating board data. That's more than double the $41,168 price tag for tuition, fees and books.

"We're certainly interested in efficiency, but it's extremely unlikely that at a tier one university it's going to be possible to do something like (the governor's proposal) without the equivalent of a large subsidy," said Dean Neikirk , chairman of UT's Faculty Council and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "You can make the charge to the student as low as you want if you can find dollars elsewhere to substitute."

Peter Hugill , a professor of geography at Texas A&M, said the governor's message struck him as a campaign line of someone running for president — which Perry says he has no interest in doing.

"I don't think it's a very practical idea," said Hugill, who is also president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors. "Do you really want a stripped-down, bare-bones degree?"

The Higher Education Coordinating Board is examining Web-based instruction and other innovations for cost savings. Paredes, the higher education commissioner, said there is nothing inherently wrong with, say, a student in Texas taking an online course including a package of lectures by a top scholar of American literature at Yale and a reading list with such titles as "Moby Dick" and "The Scarlet Letter" that are out of copyright and sell for very little. Graduate students at various universities could be hired to grade students' work, he said.

The coordinating board is conducting an inventory of online offerings and could cobble together a comprehensive program, Paredes said. The agency has also been talking to Western Governors University about expanding its presence in Texas.

Western Governors is a private, nonprofit online university founded by the governors of 19 states, including Texas. It charges $5,780 a year for tuition; books are extra. It has 22,500 students in all 50 states.

"Technology is clearly the core of what we are doing," said Robert Mendenhall , president of Western Governors. But cost-cutting can be carried only so far, he said. Web-based programs still need faculty members who interact with students and grade their work, especially writing, a core skill in higher education.

"I don't want to be put in the position of disagreeing with the governor or Bill Gates," Mendenhall said. "They've both done some amazing things. We totally agree and embrace the concept that we simply have to find new ways to provide higher education at lower cost."

Critics of online education worry about quality and intangibles that could be lost without a face-to-face setting.

"A lot of the discussion about online classes takes the view that education is a package of facts," said John Curtis , director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors in Washington. "Education is a process of interaction, of thinking through concepts, debating ideas and having others react to your thoughts."

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