12/05/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

A Magic Number

Two prominent Republicans -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott -- share more than a first name. The governors also agree on the optimal price tag for a bachelor's degree: the appealingly round figure of $10,000. It has become a journalistic tic to refer to swelling tuition costs as a higher-education bubble on the verge of bursting, but the numbers are there. The average annual cost of tuition at a U.S. public four-year institution is $8,655, and a year of in-state tuition at the University stands at $12,224, according to Student Financial Services.

State leaders in recent weeks, most notably Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, unveiled higher education plans centered on cost-cutting and vocational learning. Scott last Monday called on Florida community colleges to create $10,000 bachelor's degree programs. Ten days earlier, Walker announced plans to tie higher education funding to how well schools prepare students for "open and needed" jobs in Wisconsin.

Virginia should perk up its ears. Perry's $10,000 degree plan was an outlier when he proposed it in February 2011. The spread of his ideas to Florida could indicate an emerging trend in state approaches to higher education. If college affordability remains a widespread concern -- and it will -- similar low-cost degree proposals may become entrenched in Republican higher education strategy.

Such proposals coincide with relentless state funding cuts to higher education. Holding microphones, lawmakers demand lower tuition; gripping pens, they slash subsidies for public institutions. State fiscal support for higher education in Florida, for example, has declined by 17.5 percent during the last five years, according to a study by the Center for Education Policy at Illinois State University. Cheap degree proposals, in the absence of sufficient state support, place an unfair onus on colleges and universities. They shift the blame for high tuition from capital to campus. Meanwhile, state funding cuts -- perhaps the largest cause of tuition increases -- continue.

You get what you pay for, or so the adage goes. Cheap degree programs are no exception. Under Perry's plan, the $10,000 figure is more than a price tag; the number includes the production costs of a bachelor's degree. The proposal amounts to a call for austerity. Public universities would be hard-pressed to maintain competitive faculty salaries and continue investing in research and infrastructure under such conditions. Most cheap degree programs, such as a $9,700 degree in information technology at Texas A&M-San Antonio, rely heavily on transfer credits from community colleges and dual enrollment in high school. At other schools, students paying full price subsidize the cheaper degrees. Shortcuts like discounted online courses could help cut prices but may end up cutting quality as well, given current uncertainty about instruction methods and practices in the virtual classroom.

Though Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell last year allocated an additional $100 million in higher education spending, state appropriations to the University remain meager. Support from the Commonwealth makes up roughly 10 percent of the University's current operating budget, down from 33.2 percent in the 1989-90 academic year. McDonnell seems unlikely to champion the kind of extreme cost-cutting initiatives recently put forth by Scott and Walker. Because of the scarce state funding the University currently receives, however, the school would be in a vulnerable position should the $10,000 trend move north. There's nothing wrong with wanting to prune unnecessary costs and make education more affordable. But calls for $10,000 degrees alongside declining state subsidies reek of political gimmickry. Instead of an informed higher-education strategy, Perry and Scott have given their states a magic number.

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