How a Bachelor’s Degree could Cost $10,000

This blog typically covers topics related to helping students finish their K-12 education successfully, but what about after that?  Can American students, once they are college-ready, afford that college tuition?

Anya Kamenetz of Third Way offers 6 straightforward ideas for how the cost of a bachelor’s degree could be $10,000. That is the cost for the entire tuition toward the degree. She’s not the first to have this idea, as Govs. Rick Perry (R-Tex.), Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) have all proposed $10,000 degrees. Of these, Kamenetz thinks that only UW’s Flexible Option offers a real chance for a cheaper college education, so she offers her own innovations:

1. Reduce administration

This is probably the most important cost-saving in Kamenetz’s plan. That’s as it should be. As you’ll recall, administrative expenses are a significant driver of college spending. Kamenetz makes the point vividly: “Roughly 70% of a typical college budget goes to compensate faculty and administration; but ironically, the real cost increases have not been in the teaching side of personnel costs but in the administrative side.”

2. Reduce perks

Kamenetz’s personnel flattening proposal doesn’t eliminate the bulk of administrative costs at schools, but her second idea does. Kamenetz would effectively end the use of tuition dollars or public subsidies on room, board, sports, extracurricular activities and food provision. Those amenities, even living in a dorm, are luxuries at this point. If students want to pay extra to live on campus or play sports, that’s their business, but there’s no reason for the government to subsidize that, or for the students to take out loans for that purpose.

3. Boost graduation

While going to college is still worth it even if you drop out, it’s a much worse deal if you don’t finish, or if you take five or six years to finish. So Kamenetz emphasizes increasing the share of students who graduate, and shrinking the period during which they do this. That means emulating self-paced universities, like the online Western Governors University, that allow students to finish faster, or embracing competency-based diplomas, where your degree is based on the knowledge base you can demonstrate, not how many years you sat in a classroom.

4. Blended learning

The choice between MOOCs and traditional, brick-and-mortar universities is often presented as an either/or, but it’s really not. A meta-analysis from the Department of Education suggests that “blended learning,” in which computerized lectures are combined with personalized in-person instruction, can save money but also boost achievement. And the more scaled-up text, video and other online content is, the more cost savings you’ll find. Imagine if every school in the country, for their freshman mechanics course, only showed lectures by the country’s most effective physics teacher, the one whose lectures are the most engaging and best at keeping students’ attention. It stands to reason that most students would learn more and millions of dollars would be saved.

5. Fewer majors

Kamenetz proposes offering only 10-12 majors, including engineering, biology, education, computer science, English, communication, accounting and economics. Around 80 percent of students major in one of  these majors anyway, so the amount of curricular damage relative to the savings would be minimal. She would also abolish the major of “business,” the single most popular undergraduate major, but perhaps also the least rigorous, and which produces relatively poor-achieving students. Instead, she’d fold practical business classes into the economics major.

6. Four levels of college
Perhaps Kamenetz’s most radical proposal is to emulate the old University of California model, which had three tiers of institutions: research universities at the top, which accepted the best students and award PhDs; California State Universities, which accepted students who didn’t reach the UCs and offer master’s degrees; and community colleges open to all, whose students had a right to spots at CSU or UC campuses once they got their associate’s degrees. That made sense in the 1960s, but Kamenetz argues that a four-tier model is more fitting these days.

So, Kamenetz’s model would undoubtedly require some serious rethinks about college education, but a look at student debt numbers may be enough to induce some of these  changes.

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