Across the nation, students and their parents are suffering more than ever under crushing student-loan debt. According to a report just out from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in the third quarter of 2011, Americans owed nearly $900 billion in student loans. It is well known that Americans’ total student-loan debt has exceeded our total credit-card debt, but this understates the problem: Our nearly $700 million in credit-card debt is spread out among almost 80 percent of the population, while student-loan debt has been amassed by only 15 percent of American consumers. Over the last quarter-century, college tuition has grown at four times the rate of inflation.
Thankfully, however, there is recent news of a higher-education initiative in Texas that promises to go a long way toward relieving this burden.
During the conference hosted by SXSWedu (an organization focusing on innovation in education) in Austin two weeks ago, Texas A&M–San Antonio announced a partnership with Alamo Colleges (a system of local community colleges) and neighboring high schools to offer a four-year bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences in information technology, with an emphasis on information security. This degree will cost $9,672 — not per year, but total.
High-school juniors are admitted to the program based on their test scores and course history. Once accepted, they can obtain up to 60 college credits at no cost, although not all of their coursework will necessarily be college level. (The exact mix of courses will vary for each student, in consultation with the program’s academic advisers.) Once they have completed high school, these students will spend a year studying at one of the community colleges in the Alamo system, and will finish their degree with an intense year at A&M–San Antonio.
The program has several quality controls in place. While taking the dual-credit courses in high school, students will be taught either by Alamo Colleges faculty or by a high-school teacher who is certified to teach college-level coursework. Moreover, by virtue of a Texas mandate, these dual-credit courses must be taught at the same standard as other college-level courses. Finally, the Alamo Colleges system is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the same body that accredits A&M.
These students will graduate around age 20, and they will do so virtually if not entirely free of student-loan debt. Current holders of the degree these students will earn tend to make between $16 and $40 an hour.
The average student today, by comparison, graduates five years after completing high school, with $25,000 of student-loan debt. Worse still, a study published last year by the University of Chicago Press finds that 31 percent of recent college graduates have had to move back home with their parents; of those who are able to find jobs, the majority make less than $30,000 a year (which works out to 50 40-hour weeks at $15 an hour).
How many parents with college graduates living in their basements would have preferred their children to have an opportunity such as that to be offered by A&M–San Antonio?
The A&M system also plans to launch two other degree offerings for just under $10,000: a bachelor of science in business administration from Tarleton State University, and a bachelor of applied sciences in organizational leadership that will be offered through A&M–Commerce and South Texas College.
With these initiatives, Texas may well provide the model for the future of public higher education across the country. Policymakers in other states may want to look to the example of Texas governor Rick Perry, who, in his State of the State Address last year, got the ball rolling by exhorting Texas universities to create college-degree programs that would cost no more than $10,000.
His appeal, made on behalf of Texas’s lower- and middle-income students, met with some skepticism. After all, in 2011, average tuition and fees for Texas universities stood at more than $27,000 for a four-year degree, and most of those concerned were predicting that they would need to go up still further.
Fortunately for Texas’s students and their parents, the A&M system has proven itself worthy of the trust implicit in the governor’s appeal.Although this joint program is new, its ingredients are not. Dual-credit courses and community-college transfer credit have for some time been staples of secondary and higher education. What’s new is the seriousness with which a public university has sought to address out-of-control tuition costs.
There is no good reason that public colleges in the rest of the union could not embark on a similar initiative.
Nor is there a good reason not to start now.
— Thomas K. Lindsay is director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during George W. Bush’s second term.