The $10K Degree – Build a Completely New Ship?

This is the fourth post in a series of undetermined length. All posts are categorized as $10K Degree.

Regarding change in higher ed, it’s often said that “it’s like trying to turn a cruise ship around.” Trying to get people to stop using that phrase is like pulling teeth (and everyone knows how hard that is, right?).

So if bringing the price of baccalaureate degrees down to $10,000 is like trying to turn the ship around after it has a full head of steam – maybe we need to build a new ship. To successfully pull off the $10K degree, will we need to create a new university from scratch?

I sorta, kinda, maybe think the answer is yes.

The group at the SREB meeting summarily dismissed this idea before the meetings ever started. Most of the attendees completed a very long survey prior to the meeting that asked their opinions about 39 different factors that had been selected as being relevant to the question of how to create a $10K degree. Respondents rated each of those factors for both  importance and uncertainty from high to low.

Factor #5 was stated as: “Establish a new institution to offer $10K degrees.”

Factor #5 was rated as the lowest in importance of all 39 factors – by a wide margin.

Furthermore, none of the planning groups proposed a new institution as part of their solution for reducing tuition through major cost savings. Instead, the proposed changes were mainly aimed at reducing instructional costs (see previous post for more details) by having more online classes, more alternative means of earning credits, less expensive faculty, getting more teaching out of the faculty through more sections taught and larger class sizes, and the like. Most of those ideas are extremely hard to implement when the ship is already sailing around the world. They’re not as hard to implement when creating something from scratch. Hiring people to work under a given set of parameters is much easier (and successful) than trying to change the parameters for those already hired. Want to have a university with a minor research component instead of a major one? Then don’t start with a current research university.

Case in point would be Western Governor’s University. When it was created, it was designed for a different learning assessment paradigm. They jettisoned the credit hour for competency-based learning, an idea that I think has a great deal of merit. However, can you imagine how much harder it would have been to change an existing university, say the University of Minnesota into a competency-based system? Harder by a magnitude of – well, it just wouldn’t have happened.

In the last post, I posed the scenario of Pitt adding a new degree program with a sticker price of $10,000. All their other programs would stay at their current pricing which ranges from about $61K to $77K for a baccalaureate degree (assuming in-state tuition for only four years and no wasted credits). Having different prices at one university is not at all unusual – but of course having such a wide spread (from $10K to $77K) would be very unusual.

It wouldn’t be so unusual though for a brand new institution, with far fewer facilities than normal (lots of online courses, no sports team, lean administration and on-site support services), to start up where all degrees that are available (possibly a limited selection for starters) are offered for $10,000 over four years. It could be done by not allowing yourself to be held hostage to past practices, tradition (very import in the academy, apparently), institutionalized inefficiencies, and all the other non-starters that would come from trying to turn around an existing institution.

It would look very different from almost all existing colleges and universities. And maybe that’s exactly the point. Maybe that’s what’s needed.

(CC Flickr photo By Mark Coggins)

4 Responses

  1. Barry –
    Great post. I was also at the SREB meeting and I agree with you that a new institution might be the only way. I thought our group had proposed a new institution. When we were done what we recommended was essentially recreating WGU. This was never openly stated, but that was the end result. What was funny was that hardly anyone on our team thought that such an new institution would work. Last I saw, WGU was racing past 25,00s students.

  2. Hi Russ. It was a fun meeting, and what a great group of people down there. That was my second SREB meeting in 3 years, and they’ve been very worthwhile.

    You’re right. The way your group reported out it didn’t necessarily sound like a new institution, but I can see how the radical changes being suggested (almost all credits were college in the schools, credit for prior learning, test out, and competencies) would never take hold in an existing college or university. At least not in any that I am aware of.

    I think the fact that WGU got off to a relatively slow start in their first few years may have clouded many people’s perspectives about them. They’ve been picking up steam in the past few years but many people haven’t noticed, thinking that their first few years were indicative of future performance – NOT!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. I think you are on to something. It will take a drastic change in doing business and the only way to implement that in a holistic way is a new institution with different policies, procedures, etc.

  4. […] and universities that I am familiar with. Therefore, we will need to build a whole new ship (see post #4). It might be possible to retrofit a current institution, but I’m afraid that the existing […]

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