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).
4. Select the state’s top scholars and scientists to design the courses, videotaping the best lecturers, purchasing the copyright of the best textbook materials, and designing a suite of web-based learning tools. This would require a significant one-time investment of approximately $500K per course, for a total of $200 million. This money could be drawn from the state’s Permanent University Fund (which generates over $500 million in income each year). For a first-rate education in the 21st century, we need intellectual property.
5. Require all state universities to offer all 412 courses to their students at a cost of only $250 per, plus $400 per semester for registration services and IT support. If a student took five courses per semester for three years, the total cost per student of the degree would be $9,900. Each student would be given free access to the state’s library of videotaped lectures, the online textbooks, and the web-based tools. The university would provide online discussion sections and laboratory sections.
Let’s suppose that each instructor receives $40K in salary plus $10K in benefits and teaches 150 students per semester. For each instructor, the state university would receive $75,000 in tuition (300 students times $250), in addition to the $800 per student to cover administration.
6. Provide mandatory state-wide standardized tests for each year of each program, providing an accurate measure of student learning. The College Learning Assessment, as well as CLEP and GRE Subject exams, could be used to measure students’ progress in critical thinking, logic, writing skills, and discipline-specific competencies. These results could be used to evaluate both courses and instructors on a rigorous, value-added basis for students of different backgrounds and aptitudes.
This sort of web-based instruction has been successfully introduced at Arizona State University. When students are given the choice there between traditional and web-based courses, most choose the latter. ASU has been able to triple its enrollment virtually overnight, adding 100,000 online students.
The availability of such efficient and streamlined programs would dramatically increase the accessibility of higher education to the young people of Texas, providing Texas with the world’s best trained workforce as well as a citizenry solidly grounded in the classics of Western civilization and American history.