Before Texas Gov. Rick Perry hit the campaign trail, boots hitched to saddle; before he rode toward sunset, errors beaten like a dead horse, his reputation for political boldness had been bolstered by his demand for some college degrees in Texas to cost less than $10,000. Many said this demand was far from bulletproof and pocked with holes all over. Perry's proposal, made February 2011 at one of those poorly named "State of the State" addresses, had not been taken seriously until the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin on Tuesday. We can only hope a plan so off-target goes back in the holster before someone pulls the trigger.
One aspect of the plan announced at SXSW involves a partnership between Texas A&M University at San Antonio and the nearby Alamo College system of community colleges. The premise is that multiple institutions would collaborate on a program -- in this case, a bachelor's degree in information technology -- to make the overall cost of a degree less expensive. Beginning in the fall, this prototype will be implemented through a host of mechanisms: Students will begin taking college coursework while in high school, then further their education with one year at an Alamo College before moving on to the campus at A&M, San Antonio.
As students take home their I.T. degrees, policymakers may point to the receipt. But if reducing the overhead comes at the price of buying a Rube Goldberg machine, which comes far from well-oiled, we reiterate the $10,000 question: at what cost?
Another idea pitched at the SXSW conference aimed to achieve Perry's objective by promoting a piecemeal shopping for electronic textbooks, where students would only download and pay for relevant course content. Those at the conference also discussed tailoring degree requirements to the individuals' academic competency rather than broad curricular requirements.
Like any visionary agenda, the problems are less glamorous. While offering colleges classes at younger ages is promising, this plan fails to expand opportunities for those not yet prepared to do such work in high school. Moreover, studies show more students arrive ill-prepared to college, and so restructuring college degrees based on competency requirements would further aggravate the disadvantages for those not yet qualified. Not only would this phenomenon, known as tracking, become incentivized, but students would not be taking advantage of the full four years of high school.
This initial plan, while giving more exposure and student course hours to community colleges, seems at the same time to be discrediting their reputation. By agreeing to serve as a one-year stepping stone to bigger Goliaths, Alamo College has dropped its slingshot and ensured that no one remembers the battle for community colleges. It does not take a scientist, or rather an information technologist, to see the main economic engine driving the cost reduction in this plan is the coursework at high school and the one-year stand at community college. Not only are four-year universities not contributing to the tuition goal, but legislators are ignoring that community colleges are a solution in search of a problem.
For our university, the main bullet-point to be taken from what was first loaded by Perry is that setting a goal of $10,000 or some other target will be outside the range of possibilities unless state governments are willing to back up their fighting words with action. Until then, education policy analysts are merely shuffling decks, and if state legislators keep playing their political hands close to the chest without going all-in, the whole house of cards may collapse.
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