Back in 2011 Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged his state to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. Lara Seligman at the Atlantic offers a look at how it’s working out.

“Did Texas Just Discover the Cure for Sky-High Tuition?” she asks. Short answer: not really. According to Seligman:

In the Lone Star State, 10 institutions have so far responded to the governor’s call with unique approaches, ranging from a five-year general-degree pipeline that combines high school, community college, and four-year university credits to a program that relies on competency-based assessments to enable students to complete a degree in organizational leadership in as little as 18 months.


Some of these approaches offer the promise of a bachelor’s degree at $10,000, which is a pretty good deal for students, but what no one’s been able to do in Texas public institutions is address the challenge specifically: offer a four year, bachelor’s degree program for less than $2500 a year. “I question an artificially set benchmark of $10,000,” Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said to Seligman.

In some sense an artificial benchmark might be very good for public policy, creating in the minds of the residents of the state an idea of what college should cost. This could, perhaps over time, influence policymakers to make that a reality. A press secretary for Gov. Perry, said that the $10,000 challenge is supposed to make cheap college “a reasonable goal for all Texans” and “will help hold higher-education institutions accountable for reining in costs.”

The trouble is that the choices real Texas state colleges are making to implement the $10,000 degree seem to be mostly gimmicks, not real efforts to reduce the cost of college for students.

One plan looks like this:

At Angelo State University, admissions will begin in January for a four-year interdisciplinary-studies program through which students can combine three separate minors into one bachelor’s degree for an overall cost of $9,974. ASU President Joseph Rallo envisions the program as the perfect fit for an adult who is interested in broadening his skills in order to advance his career, not necessarily a student looking for the traditional college experience.

Under another college’s program:

At the University of Texas (Arlington), the university teamed up with Tarrant County community colleges and school districts to create a program that would allow students to obtain a degree in any field for less than $10,000. Students in their junior and senior years of high school will complete dual credit programs already provided by their school districts in order to earn some college credit. The students will go on to spend about a year at community college before finishing their degree at UT Arlington.

A design like the above is typical. It results in a $10,000 bachelor’s degree, yes, but only because the cost of that education has been transferred to other places, notably public high schools.

There’s nothing here that will “help hold higher-education institutions accountable for reining in costs.” The college has no incentive to rein in costs; someone else is paying them.

Sure the special program at Arlington, which according to the school, “would appeal [only] to the most dedicated, focused students who know from high school who know from high school that they are willing to work hard to maximize their college investments,” costs $10,000 but a normal University of Texas (Arlington) education still costs more than $30,000.

The trouble with the Texas plan is that governor’s challenge sugests that affordable college is all about creative delivery and brilliant new ideas. Some of that might help keep costs down, but the only reliable way to make public higher education cheap for students is for taxpayers to assume most of the cost of that education. This is not a mystery; this is how it worked until very recently.

The structural problem here is one that pertains to all states; over time state legislatures have provided less funding for state universities, forcing students to assume more of the cost, largely financed by debt. State governors can issue “challenges” all they want, but as long as they avoid tacking the real structural problem cheap public college isn’t going to come back.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer