Buyer Beware the Bargain-Basement B.A.!

Those $10,000 degrees and “competency-based” models are not the solution.

The all-online Western Governors University charges students $6,000 a year but employs no professors.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Shutterstock.

College tuition in the United States will soon be a full 500 percent—more than four times the rate of inflation—of what it was in 1984. And not just at elite private colleges, where a negligible percentage of students come from families without means. More perplexing—and infuriating—is the tuition inflation at state and regional universities, at which the vast majority of college-bound Americans earn their degrees. My friends in my hometown of Eugene, Ore., are looking at yearly in-state tuition topping $9,600 for their children at the U of O (if, that is, the townies they spawned can beat out all the Californians). My former students at the Ohio State University, a “public ivy,” pay $10,010; my current crop at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, a plucky regional that is one of Washington Monthly’s best “bangs for your buck,” pay $9,474. None of these rates includes room, board, or books. This is insane.

But fear not, valiant higher-ed bargain shoppers (what we used to call “normal people trying to make a better life for themselves or their children”): Several states have put college on sale. Only one problem: These bargain B.A.s are largely imaginary and sometimes actually dangerous. The flaws in these programs demonstrate that the overwhelming response to calls to bring down the price of a degree, from parents to the president, is to charge marginally less money for an experience that only technically qualifies as a college education.

In the “imaginary” category is the mythical $10,000 B.A, which reappeared in the news recently. Govs. Rick Perry and Rick Scott, of Texas and Florida, have both “challenged” their state schools to create a low-cost baccalaureate, using a focus on lower-cost instructional delivery models (read: online classes and MOOCs). The New York Times reports that in Florida, this has resulted in several of the state’s attrition-plagued regional colleges making zero curricular or instructional changes whatsoever, and instead shuffling around a handful of waivers to make subsidized degrees available to a total of about 150 students. In Texas, meeting Perry’s challenge mostly involves giving high-school and community college students as much transfer credit as possible—credits that most certainly cost students and/or taxpayers money but that don’t appear in the vaunted total “college” cost.

Thus, the $10,000 B.A.—which, again, does not include room, board, books, transportation, or child care for the many college students who are single parents—is largely a chimera. But even if it did exist, what kind of message does it send students, or potential employers, that there is now another stratification of college degree: elite private, public flagship, public regional, and now public regional cut-rate? And besides, if a college education can be given for $10,000, why isn’t it available to everyone?

In the “dangerous” category is the much ballyhooed “competency-based” model, the subject of this weekend’s extensive New York Times profile. On the surface, the “new wave of innovators” described in the Times sounds like they’re creating something fair: Students receive credit for what they know or what they can do, rather than just how much time they’ve spent with a butt in a particular lecture-hall seat.

But students don’t whine about attending required courses because they’re too smart for them; they complain because learning takes work, and that work isn’t just passing a proficiency test. A semester-long course is not just the (temporary) accumulation of (dubious) knowledge or skills—it’s a journey in which, if it’s a good class, students come out different than they were when they started. They not only learn course material, but also develop as thinkers, readers, writers, mathematicians, experimenters, useful humans. I guess you have to hand it to the competency model for giving up entirely on the prospect of growing as a person and instead just offering diplomas you can buy.

For the reality of the competency model is that it rarely saves that much money, for students still usually must purchase college credit in exchange for passing an exam, often administered via for-profit platforms such as Kryterion. Even more worrying are the competency-based institutions that offer credit for “life experience.” The leader in this model is the all-online Western Governors University, the Missouri franchise that actively poaches my students via an aggressive ad campaign on campus bus and train stations. At WGU, for $6,000 a year, students can get a B.S. in nursing after little contact with patients or mentors; they can become teachers, although they themselves have little experience with either teaching or learning.* The nursing and the education programs do have minimal in-person requirements (as little as 12 weeks of classroom experience for teachers). However, as WGU employs no professors (they contract out classes to textbook publishers and employ only “evaluators”), the question is: How are these student-consumers mentored or assessed? 

A real solution to the spiraling costs of college would be to take actual substantive measures to bring tuition down for everyone. For example, institutions could simply deflate the artificially inflated “status symbol” sticker price of education. Here’s another revolutionary idea (I am being sarcastic; almost everyone agrees with me): Perhaps universities should cease paying administrators, with ever-more-ludicrous job titles (“executive dean”), like they’re Fortune 500 bigwigs. Finally, enough already with the resort-style dormitories and “amenities.” Eighteen-year-olds are delighted enough to be living away from home; they do not need a stadium-seated media room on every floor, especially because they will just cover it in vomit.

The indecorous truth is that even with these dubious clearance-priced degrees, without a radical overhaul in either state funding or university management, college in the United States will continue to cost vastly more than students can afford. But we will continue to tell them that in order to find employment, they have no choice but to go—and yet when (or if) they graduate, there will still be few jobs for them. Which, of course, is a raw deal at any price.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2013: This article originally mischaracterized a degree offered by Western Governors University. The school offers a B.S. in nursing to students who are already RNs. (Return.)