The $10 000 College Degree

A Texas university offers a low-cost bachelor’s in IT. But what’s it worth?

Photo: Danette Holley Photography/Getty Images

Come the summer of 2016, Texas A&M University–San Antonio will graduate its first group of students with bachelor’s diplomas in information technology, at the bargain price (for the United States) of US $9700.

When the university’s president, Maria Hernandez Ferrier, announced the bachelor’s of applied arts and sciences IT degree  [PDF] in March, listeners were astounded. Just last year, critics scoffed and education officials scratched their heads at Governor Rick Perry’s call to his state’s public higher-ed institutions to develop a four-year bachelor’s degree for no more than $10 000. That’s within range of a single year’s tuition and fees at sister school Texas A&M–College Station or the University of Texas–Austin.

The San Antonio university’s intent is clear: an affordable degree designed to make disadvantaged kids highly employable. Still, critics worry that it will result in a subpar education.

The new degree relies on collaboration with community colleges and a stripped-down version of the college IT curriculum. Texas high school students will take dual credit courses starting their junior year, followed by networking and security courses at a community college, which gets them an associate’s degree in applied sciences. Next will come nearly 70 hours of college junior- and senior-level business communication and IT courses at the university. At the end, students will emerge prepared for entry-level jobs in network administration, security, and support, says Carolyn Green, director of Texas A&M–San Antonio’s center for information technology and cybersecurity. “They could be hired from the associate’s program, but with the bachelor’s they’re in a position to advance in their jobs or go to graduate school.”

There is no pretense that the degree is equivalent to a traditional four-year computer science or IT degree. For the price, it’s next to impossible to include the math, programming, and computer engineering courses, electives, and lab work that those degrees require, Green says.

A major criticism of the $10 000 degree proposal is that it will undermine the notion of a bachelor’s degree. Even with all the cost-cutting measures, “I do not see how they can meet a $10 000 target without severely reducing the quality of the degree, probably by using a lot of online instruction, packaged learning, and low-cost and possibly outdated instructional material,” says Peter Hugill, a professor at Texas A&M–College Station. “I suspect many students will rarely see a real live faculty member.”

Other schools offer low-cost IT or computer science degrees. Public universities in many states, including Florida and New Mexico, offer in-state tuition at less than $20 000 for four years. And undergraduate tuition is free or waived at a handful of private institutions such as Berea College in Kentucky and the more selective Cooper Union in New York City.

Even schools that cost over $40 000 are worth their price for engineering and technology degrees because of the more-than-twofold jump in salary the degree brings over a high school diploma, says Nicole Smith, a senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. But, she says, college isn’t just about getting a job; it’s a multifaceted experience that builds social and problem-solving skills.

Nevertheless, Smith adds, cheap college degrees are a must in the current economy, even at the expense of that quintessential college experience. Many states can’t subsidize education, and many students want an education that can guarantee a job. “The proof will be in the pudding,” she says, about the $10K degree in Texas. “Once you get this degree, can you get a job that will pay wages?”

Green says that big San Antonio–area employers—the United Services Automobile Association, the U.S. Air Force, and energy and banking companies—are already aware of and excited about the new degree program.

The crucial message here is that higher education is not one size fits all, according to Steve Moore, a Texas A&M University System spokesman. “There’s a realization now that not everybody can be educated in the same way, nor do they need to be educated in the same way to be effective in the workforce.”

About the Author

Prachi Patel, an IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, is a Pittsburgh-based science journalist who focuses on energy, environmental, and medical technologies. She is also a frequent contributor to Technology Review, Sciam.com, Wired news, Nature News, and other publications.

This article was modified on July 26, 2012.

This article appeared in print as “The $10 000 College Degree.”

 

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