Monday, December 10, 2012

The $10,000 Degree

I am a huge fan of Consumer Reports and consider them the most objective source of product information available anywhere. Rarely do I ever purchase a product without first checking their evaluation. So when it comes to buying or leasing a car, I look in detail at the ratings of the type of car I am interested in and able to afford. But since I am also a car person, I can’t resist looking at the ratings in general. On a scale of 0-100, there are cars in the 90s, which are top rated, and there are cars in the 30s, which are little more than basic transportation. The cars with the higher ratings often, though not exclusively, are more expensive; the cars with the lower ratings are often, but not exclusively, lower priced. I am tempted to give actual examples but I am certain that Consumer Reports is familiar enough to the Inside Higher Education readership that no specifics are necessary.

A highly ranked car or a poorly ranked car will get you to the same place often at the same time (assuming everyone follows legal speed limits). Likewise, a highly priced car and a low priced car will also get you to the same place at the same time. The same analogy holds for the $10,000 degree and the $30,000 a year tuition charge. Offering a bachelor’s degree for $10,000 is certainly doable and I feel confident that on standardized objective tests, the results could be very similar and possibly identical to higher cost degree programs. But is the product really the same?

What will the $10,000 degree look like? A MOOC tied to recitation sections at another college is one likely alternative. You can get thousands of students into the MOOC and recitation sections could perhaps reach up to a hundred students each. The lead faculty could be a well known expert and a fascinating lecturer. The recitation section could be taught by a person whose qualifications are much less high powered. MOOCs are typically free, at least up to now, so the cost incurred by the credit granting institutions (which may just consist of the recitation leaders’ compensation) could be minimal. Please understand, this is not what I advocate but it is a workable model for a low priced degree.

Large lecture sections provide another alternative for a lower cost degree. Five hundred students in a lecture class certainly moderates the cost equation. But is this the same education that a student receives in a 30 student class? Are the important extras also there? Would there be advisement, counseling, career services, other support services, sports, faculty with sufficient time to meet with students, co-curricular activities, an attractive campus, etc.? Not likely – there is just so much you can do for a very low price.

What is better? The value proposition of a $10,000 degree or the much more personalized education which a $30,000 annual tuition charge is likely to deliver? For some students, it may not matter. Their skill set and their comprehension of the material is such that to a significant degree they can teach themselves. But there are many other students that need guidance and support to succeed. They have the potential to succeed beyond expectations but not without the safety net of individualized attention and support services. As college continues to be the economic ticket to success for so many of our students we need to work to both not lose accessibility while at the same time making sure we meet the diverse and not insubstantial needs of many of our students. As attractive as a $10,000 price tag may be for higher education, it is fairly certain to not meet the needs of many in our society. Think about it; who is likely to gravitate toward this minimal cost degree? Will it be those who don’t have the economic resources to pursue a more enriched education? How will their support service needs be met? And if this minimalist degree doesn’t meet those needs what happens to their chance to succeed?

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