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)

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.