NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Once upon a time the prospect of spending $10,000 on a college degree would have sounded absurd. Nowadays with the average tuition fees for a public university costing more than $35,000 for a four-year degree and students finishing college on an average $29,400 in debt, a $10,000 degree sounds like the deal of the century. Or does it?
Embarking on a degree that effectively costs a third less than conventional college course tuition has been made possible due to an innovative new program provided by Southern New Hampshire University.
Also See: Meet the $10,000 College Degree
The College for America
The College for America program prides itself as being a bachelor's degree built for working adults and their employers. What is the first fully-accredited, nationally-available $10,000 bachelor's degree is open to workers at companies and nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. that have partnered with Southern New Hampshire University. The idea behind the program is that respected university degrees are not only made more affordable but they are also more applicable in the workplace.
A competency-based approach
College for America claims that the affordability of the degree is made possible because of its nonprofit mission and its unique competency-based approach. Rather than sitting through endless lectures and exams and following the traditional credit-based model most college students are used to, with this competency-based degree program, students are, according to the College for America website, taught at a self-directed pace, are able to compete in the "real world" by developing promotional skills through online projects which are relevant to their careers.
Students that complete the College for America program will earn an accredited bachelor's degree from Southern New Hampshire University.
On the surface the program sounds more like an apprenticeship only with a degree at the end of it.
We can't ignore the fact that in recent years there has been a string of attempts by higher education leaders and state lawmakers to introduce a means to ending the trammel of debt modern students are faced with when leaving university.
Will the latest venture in the so-called $10,000 degree movement be a realistic and feasible way to help students earn degrees without being hampered with thousands of dollars worth of debt and be better placed to compete in the jobs market? Or is it just another political gimmick that is unlikely to catch on?
The $10,000 degree movement
Southern New Hampshire University is hardly the first establishment in the U.S. to embark on a venture that offers students the opportunity to be university-educated for less.
Fueled by ballooning student debt and bachelor's degrees that are considered "flat," there has been a push to inaugurate the so-called $10K degree.
In 2013 Florida Governor Rick Scott announced all 23 of the state college institutions in his state that offer bachelor degrees planned to create four-year courses that cost no more than $10,000. When Rick Scott made the announcement, several colleges in Texas were also working towards introducing similar measures. Talking about the value of an affordable education, Scott said in a statement:
"It is important our students can get an affordable education, and our state colleges have stepped up to the challenge to find innovative ways to provide a quality eduction at a great value. Our goal should be that students do not have to go into debt in order to obtain a degree."
Scott offers a blunt appraisal that he believes some degrees are worth more than others. In Florida, math, science, teaching and business degrees are likely to receive more attention than humanities in the job market.
Criticisms to the $10K Degree Movement
It has long been debated whether humanity degrees are beneficial to students' careers or whether they are a waste of time and money. Despite the fact that arts courses have a bad reputation in terms of their value, there is a body of evidence to suggest otherwise. For example, according to data compiled by a Georgetown survey on college graduates in 2013, the average unemployment rate for new graduates across all of the humanities is 9%, on-par with math and computer science. What's more, the survey also reveals that when it comes to underemployment, the most underemployed major is actually the business graduate.
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In this sense, programs like College of America and Scott's proposal that focus on business and more vocationally-based degrees, essentially dismiss the likes of arts and humanity, which are less easy to directly translate into money, and the benefits such courses bring to students' futures.
The "Walmart of Education"
Some university staff have expressed concern that the quality of education will "inevitably suffer" if college tuition fees are slashed. For example, Scott's plans have been dubbed by critics as the "Walmart of Education." Democrat critics argue that if universities are expected to cut tuition fees without receiving more state subsidies, cuts will have to be made elsewhere. Not only this but cheaper tuition is likely to result in a poorer quality of education that perhaps won't be noticed until it's too late, argue those in opposition of the $10K degree movement.
$10K Degrees Have Already Arrived
Critics of the movement are also quick to point out that $10,000 degrees are already being achieved in many states.
According to College Board data when you factor in federal grant aid, tax credits, and state and institutional aid, in 2012, students paid an average of just over $2,910 a year on tuition fees. College Board data also revealed that in the same year, the average 120-credit bachelor's degree in Florida's state universities were under the $10,000 mark.
But are they a gimmick?
Andy Pickard, former Head of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, dismisses claims that such $10,000 degree programs are a gimmick, citing cheaper courses based on vocational courses are always going to attract certain students.
"This certainly isn't a gimmick," he said. "The logic of the marketization of education is that in certain areas of higher education – notably vocational degrees aimed at older students – new providers will begin to compete with the traditional campus-based university. Where students are motivated simply by cost/benefit calculations then some at least will choose such a route in preference to a course at a more prestigious university."
The former university leader went on to say the publicity for the "new" approach is something of a parody of the traditional university course, which these days has rather more employment-based project work rather than sitting in lecture rooms and doing exams. Pickard does, however, question the quality of competency-based degrees and wouldn't like to see them replace traditional university programs in non-vocational subjects.
"While I'd be relaxed about the marketing manager for McDonald's having a competency-based degree, I sure wouldn't want my doctor or the engineer who built the local bridge to be taught that way," he said. "I need them to understand their subject as well as be competent."
It seems competency-based degrees certainly have their place in society, namely for working adults who are looking for a flexible learning option that provides them with the skills applicable to their field. Whether they are the answer to rising college costs remains doubtful, because when all is said and done, $10,000 for four years of college tuition isn't actually new or cheap.
--Written by Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead