A $10,000 BA Degree?

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of CLAS.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has challenged public higher education in Texas to provide a BA degree for $10,000. A very distinguished group of higher education experts, including UConn’s Gaye Tuchman, react to this proposal in this morning’s New York Times, arguing whether this is a good idea on educational principles and considering whether it might be feasible using technology and a reconfiguration of the way faculty spend their time.

But Perry’s challenge isn’t higher education policy, it’s a business proposal. It reminds me of Hewlett-Packard’s recent experience. Their tablet computer, offered at its original price of several hundred dollars, was a total bust because it couldn’t compete with the iPad and no one wanted it. When they sold it at clearance for  $99, it was a hit. The only problem was they couldn’t afford to produce it for $99.

It isn’t enough to offer a BA degree for $10,000. That’s easy. Send me $10,000 and I’ll send you, by return mail, a Bachelor’s Degree from Teitelbaum University. I’ll even pay the Fedex costs. Of course, the degree I send you won’t even be worth the paper it’s printed on, and so I don’t expect many people to take me up on my offer – that’s the point. You have to offer a $10,000 degree that you can both afford to produce and that people will be willing to buy. Most of the discussion seems to be about the first point – reducing costs – and not so much about the second.

At UConn, we have beautiful landscaping; we have a wide range of student enrichment programs that take place outside of class; we have big-time athletics; we offer all kinds of student advising services and career placement services; we have campus-wide wireless service available for everyone; we have coffee shops serving espresso; we have tutoring services for math and writing; fraternities and sororities; huge parking lots … and on and on. Nothing on the list above is critical to the core educational or research mission of the University. In fact, according to the recent book Academically Adrift, some of them may be actually harmful! Why do we have those things? Because our customers want them and, under the current pricing structure, are willing to pay for them!

There are large research universities located in big cities that can offer a first-class education by serving commuter students, minimizing student activities, and focusing on the classroom and laboratory. My first tenure-track job was at one such institution, the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, during my nearly 20 years there, I saw the institution build dorms, expand its student recreational facilities, and try to build up its basketball team. I also saw its tuition – and its many student fees – go up dramatically. Indeed, at one point the student body voluntarily imposed a significant fee on itself to pay for a new gym. Yet throughout that time, applications continued to go up. The customers wanted more services, and enough of them were willing to pay for them.

We should be looking at ways to make college accessible to people at a reasonable cost, and (shocking as this is to me) I think there’s merit in Gov. Perry’s challenge. My fear is that even if I could find a way to offer a high-quality $10,000 BA degree, I wouldn’t find any customers. My competitors would offer a $15,000 BA degree and throw in a lacrosse team, and I’d be out of business.