Inside the $10,000 degree: How some schools are making college more affordable

money and graduation hat

College can be prohibitively expensive, but one institution is part of a potential solution. College for America — a nonprofit degree program within Southern New Hampshire University — launched its $10,000 bachelor's degree program in 2014. Available in communications and potentially in health care management (pending accreditation), the two online degree programs have a substantially reduced price tag thanks in part to College for America's competency-based learning model. Instead of offering grade-based curricula, the program works with employers and SNHU to develop "competencies" that students should master and then assigns projects to develop those skills.

"You submit your project, you get very timely and targeted feedback within a 24- to 48-hour window, and then if you don't master a particular competency, you get a 'Not Yet,'" says Yvonne Simon, College for America's chief learning architect. You also get the opportunity to try again until you succeed.

Aside from offering an official degree, the main factor that differentiates College for America from other online learning models — massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example — is the emphasis placed on project feedback.

"How many students have really had very specific and detailed feedback on what they do?" Simon says. "For some students, they've never had that before, so that's something that really helps them. It personalizes the learning at scale."

Similar initiatives in Texas and Florida

The program, which began granting associate degrees in 2013, is currently limited to employees of College for America partner organizations, but there are several $10,000-degree initiatives that have more open enrollment policies. Back in 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida challenged state colleges to design four-year degree programs students can complete for less than $10,000 in tuition and fees. A handful of public institutions have implemented such programs, with varying eligibility requirements and financing models.

The limited number of $10,000 bachelor's degree programs currently available in nine Florida colleges (another 12 will begin marketing their programs this summer) are designed to meet local workforce demands, says Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System. These degrees are only offered through the Florida College System (which doesn't include several of the state's major public institutions, such as the University of Florida or Florida State University) and are available in specific fields — education, business management, criminal justice and computer information systems among them.

Schools each develop their own approaches to keeping costs low. At some institutions, students pay full tuition up front for the first three years, then receive a scholarship, tuition waiver or other form of financial aid to lower their total tuition and fee costs over four years to $10,000, provided they meet all other eligibility requirements.

"It was never the intent that all bachelor's degree students would only have to pay $10,000," Hanna says, adding that the $10,000 initiative is one of several programs designed to keep the state's already low public education costs affordable. Since Florida’s $10,000 degrees are only available in a small number of majors and are only open to students who meet the sometimes-strict eligibility parameters, this program simply isn’t available to many students. For those who don’t qualify, Florida's average tuition and fees at a four-year school are currently $6,336 annually — about $25,000 to $27,000 over four years, depending on tuition inflation — which is lower than average costs in 43 states and more than $2,500 below the national average.

Is more state funding the answer?

"The majority of those seeking postsecondary education today are nontraditional students, meaning that they're over 25 and/or have work full-time and/or have families of their own to support," says Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "For them, the new majority, something like the $10,000 degree, and the flexibility and affordability and access that it offers, is their only ticket to the American Dream."

But, as is the case with Florida's program, qualifying for $10,000 degrees isn't always easy. For example, students earning a $10,000 Bachelor of Independent Studies degree at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, must have SAT scores of 1220 or higher or ACT scores of above 26 to qualify, and they must maintain a 3.5 GPA or better. Additional $10,000 degree opportunities are available for high-performing incoming freshmen. The $10,000 degrees at the University of Houston-Victoria are designed to be completed in three, rather than four, years. In Gainesville, Fla., Santa Fe College’s $10K degree in Organizational Management only accepts incoming freshmen who already have 15 college credits, such as through Advanced Placement courses.

A better solution is to encourage colleges to improve student retention and completion and to redirect state funds back into higher education, says Daniel J. Hurley, associate vice president for Government Relations and State Policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveals that 48 states spend less on higher education per student today than they did before the 2008 recession. Arizona took the top slot, with per student funding dropping 48.3 percent between 2008 and 2014, but Florida and Texas made the list as well, with 29.7 percent and 22.5 percent decreases, respectively.

"States provided a nice increase for higher education in this past fiscal year, about a 5.7 percent increase, and, sure enough, the tuition rates at public four-year universities for the year that just ended was the lowest increase in more than 30 years," Hurley says. Both Florida and Texas increased higher education spending last year, by 17.6 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively, according to joint study by the Illinois State University's Center for the Study of Education Policy and the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Colleges partner with companies

One way to potentially keep costs down is through partnerships between colleges and private business. Thanks to a $2 million gift from AT&T and a partnership with the online learning platform Udacity, the Georgia Institute of Technology launched its online $7,000 Master of Computer Science degree this spring. The AT&T gift currently supports the program's startup costs.

Michael Terrazas, director of communications for the Georgia Tech College of Computing, believes that before the startup funds are depleted, the program will be self-sustaining, thanks to elevated enrollment levels that would be hard to maintain in a traditional classroom setting. The program in Georgia has already run two separate application windows, and during the combined 11-week application period, it received around 4,000 applications, which is approximately triple the number received by the school's brick-and-mortar program in an entire year. The next application window opens Sept. 8.

"If the program continues on its current trajectory in terms of the number of applications it receives from students and the number of enrollments, and students continue to be satisfied and we can find ways to show that the learning outcomes from the online program are equivalent to what we have for the on-campus program, it's hard to imagine that other universities would not follow suit," Terrazas says.

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