11 February 2011

Deserving cheap degrees

Texas, like every other state in the U.S., is having a hard time making ends meet. And this has big implications for state institutions like the one I’m at. So the governor’s recent comments on higher education in the state of the state address were interesting.

One idea that emerged from that process is called “Outcomes-Based Funding” in which a significant percent of undergraduate funding, would be based on the number of degrees awarded. Texans deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars, not just college enrollment.

Ah, that word again: “Deserve.” If we were in ancient Greece, I might say that only the gods know what people deserve. Maybe everyone deserves to be a millionaire. And you can make that happen. But then a loaf of bread will set you back $500,000.

I just can’t see how changing the funding incentive to graduation can lead to anything but pressure to lower standards. And what will happen when Perry’s revered employers start to realize that they’ve hired incompetent screw-ups?

This also ignores that people don’t complete degrees for all sorts of personal reasons, not just because the university fails somehow to provide a service. People drop out to start businesses, families, find they are uninterested. These are not factors that an institution can control, short of kidnapping, bribery, and other nefarious deeds.

I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor's degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks.

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

Interesting. I looked at my own university’s costs. We have one of the lowest costs in the state of Texas. Cost for our resident students are way over Perry’s $10,000 mark in one year. I have no idea how Perry can suggest cutting costs to less than 25% of what they are now as an achievable goal.

Perry’s challenge has about as much chance of happening as challenging automobile makers to create a car that gets 120 miles to the gallon. You can do it, but the transformation you’d have to undergo would be so radical that you might end up losing a lot of value.

You can make a vehicle that gets over a hundred miles per gallon. It’s called a bicycle (estimates of mileage here and here; regardless of the exact numbers, bicycles are mighty efficient). But I don’t know if the governor would appreciate getting a bicycle in place of a car.

Additional: The College Guide blog reaches similar conclusions.


Anonymous said...

We have a similar funding structure in Finland: institutions receive a set amount of money per each awarded degree. In the absence of tuition fees, you can imagine

Where has this led us? A large number of institutions offering courses on popular subjects like media studies, in the hopes of attracting more undergrads and eventually being able to award more degrees. This in turn results in flooding the graduate market with unemployable young people with useless degreees. How many Archeology or Media Studies graduates do you think a country of 5 million people can usefully employ? And yet we pump out thousands of them every year.

Good luck Texas, if they decide to go down this route.

Jeff Alexander said...

There's a slight flaw in this analysis that I also made and didn't realize until I tried explaining the situation to a friend. When Gov. Perry says, "Texans deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars, not just college enrollment," he does not mean that a college student deserves a degree merely for paying tuition. He means that Texans who have their pay taxed by the state deserve to have that tax money spent productively -- in this case, on universities that provide good education (which in turn produces more skilled workers to bolster the state's economy; which in turn improves everyone's financial situation, including the original taxpayers; which in turn justifies said taxation in a Conservative-friendly way).

The problem with conflating "provides a good education" with "produces lots of graduates" is left as an exercise to the reader.