Thursday, March 22, 2012

Degrees of Snobbery

By Jonathan Miller, Project Associate.

Rick Santorum, in a criticism of President Obama’s push for universal access to higher education, was quoted as saying, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.” Snobbery and elitism are not new barbs with which the right is now attacking the left, but in this case, it takes on a new connotation: college, in general, is a partisan issue. Fortunately, the bit played poorly with Santorum’s own party and Republican governors have come out in support of the President.

There is widespread acknowledgement that earning a college degree, whether in a technical college setting or a four year institution, provides a higher standard of living via increased wages. The following table shows median earnings based on terminal levels of education.

Median Earnings for Levels of Educational Attainment, 2010

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey

Not only do better educated workers earn more, but since 2000 median earnings have increased the most for those with higher degrees, while the least educated have seen little improvement. Further, unemployment rates during the Great Recession were much lower for those with bachelor’s degrees, peaking at 5.1 percent.

However, there has recently been a national examination of whether college is “worth it.” According to the College Board tuition and fees have increased 130 percent over the past 20 years. Median incomes have not kept up.

Median Income and Tuition, 1988-2008

Source: IRS and College Board via

Further complicating the issue is the rising amount of student debt. Some people have described it as a “bubble,” in which zealous “investors” (read students) are over valuing the returns on education and paying too much (see “Debt by Degrees” by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker).

So the question becomes, can we make college “worth it”? Either the marketplace needs to rain money on college graduates or college needs to become cheaper. If we suppose, for the moment, that labor market principles are unlikely to change in the near term, then we are realistically left with the second option: make college cheaper.

The state of Texas has made such a proposition reality (they apparently agree that economic principles are here to stay, for a time yet). At South by Southwest in Austin, TX, educators from Texas A&M announced that students, starting in the fall of 2012, will be able to earn a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M-San Antonio in information technology with an emphasis on cybersecurity for $9,672. The degree is being made possible through collaboration between Texas A&M and Alamo Colleges, a community college system in San Antonio. Students enrolling in the program will earn dual course credit starting their junior year in high school, attend Alamo College for a year, and finish the final year at Texas A&M-San Antonio. Testing out of required classes via AP tests help lower the cost (AP and other dual credit classes are covered by the state of Texas education funding). Graduates of the program will be around the age of 20, hold a degree, and be qualified for jobs paying between $16 and $40 per hour.

The ability to offer a bachelor’s degree for under $10,000 was not the culmination of years of work, but rather the response of an educational system to a challenge put forth by Governor Rick Perry in his 2011 State of the State address. Plans for additional bachelor degrees under $10,000 in organizational leadership and business administration are already underway.

I think this is a game changer. Allowing students to obtain a degree in a field that will be growing for years to come, for under $10,000, is an incredible achievement. All of a sudden, students are able to access college cheaply and without spending additional years racking up debt and additional expenses.

If it’s possible in Texas, its possible anywhere.