NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Imagine getting a B.A. while paying only $10,000 for tuition. Four years, ten grand and you're done.

Now imagine how small your student loan could be. If you managed to save even $500 during the summer before you started, the amount you'd have to borrow for tuition could conceivably run to four figures, not five.

What's the catch? The early returns are that the existing programs, which are in the equivalent of beta testing, will most likely benefit a limited number of high performers, and it is too soon to speculate on the reach of the $10,000 degree. What's more, observers believe that significant amounts of money would have to come from state governments at a time when local funding for post-secondary education has been trending down.

Current rollouts are happening in Florida and Texas at a limited number of colleges. Pumping the concept are Republican governor Rick Perry of Texas and Rick Scott, his GOP counterpart in Florida. Perry wants 10% of B.A.s awarded by state schools to be $10,000 degrees.

Florida's Broward College has set the bar fairly high but is also pretty typical; you need a 3.0 GPA, you must be a Florida resident enrolled in college for the first time and be committed to continuous enrollment, meaning you finish in four years when the national average is closer to six. As Broward president J. David Armstrong told the New York Times last Saturday, "This isn't going to be for the masses."

In theory, this could eventually change life in the borrower universe; in practice, the fact that these are state programs seems to muddy the waters. A source within the Department of Education who spoke on background said, "Since these are state-led issues and programs, there's no comment from us." Sallie Mae spokesperson Nikki Lavoie did not respond to a request for comment.

Broward College's Armstrong acknowledged that the state would have to fund these programs to be offered in significant numbers. Critics have decried the $10,000 degree as something that would turn higher learning into an off-the-rack commodity, making the university experience a lot like the big box store experience.

$10,000 is not the lowest of the low-ball estimates--Bill Gates has already stated that online learning ought to make it possible for students to pay just $2,000 per year for college. But regardless of how low anyone thinks they can go, many signs seem to be pointing toward MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—as a change agent that could help drive down prices and the concomitant need to borrow.

But if MOOCs start to define the center of gravity for the $10,000 degree, how to charge for and evaluate these courses could be problematic. Their main selling point might be that they are necessarily cheaper than courses conducted by a professor in a classroom. They may be just as alienating as having to sit with hundreds of other people in a lecture hall. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 9 that 90% of people who sign up for MOOCs don't finish them, which suggests that the problem of people who borrow and leave school without their degree won't be solved, even if they're borrowing less.

--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet