In his recent State of the State address, Texas Governor Rick Perry called for the state’s universities to begin offering a bachelor’s degree with a total cost (including tuition, fees, and textbooks) of only $10,000, in contrast to the current $26,800 to $45,300. If we include the cost to taxpayers, the total bill (at UT-Austin) runs to at least $95,000.
Can we really reduce that cost by nearly 90%, while maintaining or even improving quality? Yes, we can, if we do two things: intelligently exploit the huge economies of scale in higher education in Texas, with 950,000 students in college; and take full advantage of technology.
Students in our state universities spend most of their academic careers in large lecture courses. The word “lecture” dates from the Middle Ages, meaning “reading.” In the days before the printing press, when books were rare, it made sense for students to fill lecture halls so they could hear their teachers read aloud — this standard operating procedure of higher education is now 500 years old. With the availability of high-speed streaming, downloading, and wifi, the old methods make less and less sense.
At our state universities, there are as many as 100 different bachelor’s programs available, from Portuguese to textiles and apparels. There are few required classes in most majors: instead each university offers thousands of electives, each course being designed and delivered by individual faculty on an ad hoc basis. The vast cafeteria of offerings generates the need for thousands of different textbook titles, burdening students with hundreds of dollars of additional expense.
Instead of recording and reusing the best lectures by the state’s best teachers, students are instead forced into an instructional lottery each semester. Many are forced to cope with mediocre lecturers. In addition, the only people who assess student learning are those who are charged with teaching them, creating an obvious conflict of interest: few professors are willing to admit that they have failed to impart knowledge to their students. The lack of independent assessment of student learning means that teachers cannot be evaluated for the quality of their instruction, beyond the mere entertainment value that is reflected in student surveys.
Finally, students are taking ever longer to complete their degree, with six years counting as the “new normal.”
To fulfill Governor Perry’s mandate of a $10,000 bachelor’s degree, we need to take the following steps:
1. Focus on 25 of the most important and popular majors: ten of the liberal arts, five natural sciences, two business degrees, five engineering degrees, and one program each in communications, education, and nursing.
2. Offer a three-year bachelor’s program, requiring 90 credits (thirty three-hour courses). Three-year bachelor’s degrees have been the norm for centuries in Great Britain, with no negative consequences.
3. Simplify and streamline the curriculum by eliminating all electives and standardizing all required courses. All students in Texas would be required to complete a twelve-course core, sixteen-course major, and two-course minor. This simplification means that the entire state would need only 412 standardized courses (twelve core courses, plus sixteen courses in each of the twenty-five majors).