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The Color of Money

It’s time higher education leaders figured out how to bring down college costs

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / September 11, 2011

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My oldest child, Olivia, will be heading to college in two years. As we’ve been putting money away, I’ve become even more passionate about helping other people find ways to cut college expenses. So I’m now intrigued by Texas Governor Rick Perry’s proposal to come up with an affordable college degree program. Perry, now running for president, has created quite a buzz for a bold and some say unrealistic higher education plan.

“I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks,’’ Perry said earlier this year.

And just how does he propose that schools offer degrees at a discount?

“Let’s leverage Web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques, and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal,’’ Perry said.

There’s been lots of chatter that Perry’s plan either won’t work or would lead to a substandard degree. One professor in an online discussion forum for The New York Times said: “Neither a watered-down bachelor’s degree nor two years at a community college seem great alternatives to the current system.’’

Aside from an unfair slap to community colleges, I’m more than perturbed that Perry’s idea is being so quickly dismissed by the education establishment. It’s long past the time that professionals in higher education work harder to figure out how to reduce costs. They can no longer smugly claim that just having a degree is a fast track to high-paying jobs.

And let’s remove the politics of Perry’s challenge. His proposal has merit.

“If we can go to the moon, we can have a $10,000 university,’’ said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“The culture of higher education is not one to minimize cost to the consumers,’’ said Vedder, who is also a professor at Ohio University and the author of “Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much.’’

The conventional wisdom has been that such debt will pay off in the end. But many families are finding this is not necessarily true because their children are graduating and not getting jobs or they are getting jobs with low salaries.

Vedder has argued that too much spending is devoted to extras - recreation facilities, larger bureaucracies, intercollegiate athletics - that do little to promote education or economic growth.

A growing number of colleges are succeeding at making college affordably accessible, Vedder says. He points to Berea College, a liberal arts college in Kentucky that awards four-year tuition scholarships to all its students, who because of financial circumstances cannot otherwise afford to attend.

I hope Perry’s idea will snowball into creative ways to cut costs while not cutting quality. We have got to figure out a way to make a higher education more affordable. If we don’t, it just won’t be low-income students we are pricing out.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.

SOURCE: Bloomberg News