Texas A&M University-San Antonio (Photo from TAMUSA.TAMUS.edu)

Higher 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 Alamo.edu)

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 RickPerry.org)
Governor Rick Perry
(Photo from RickPerry.org)

“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 CollegeBoard.com, 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 FLGov.com)
Florida Governor Rick Scott
(Photo from FLGov.com)

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 TSUS.edu)

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 UTPB.edu)
The University of Texas-Permian Basin
(Photo from UTPB.edu)

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 Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]

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Miriam Sitz

Miriam Sitz writes about urbanism, architecture, design, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @MiriamSitz