The past few weeks have been eventful for higher education in Texas, and their results may well ripple across the country. The great dilemma faced by both Texas and every other state in the union is how simultaneously to rescue public higher education's business model and increase student learning. Texas has long been known for thinking big. Its approach to higher education reform is no exception. It has begun a two-track reform effort that consists not only of expanding its signature, $10,000-degree programs but also, and more importantly, of introducing measures to increase the transparency with which public colleges and universities operate.
The deficiencies in higher education's business model have become manifest: In the last three decades, college tuitions have risen 440 percent. No surprise, student loan debt has followed the same upward arc; today outstanding student loan debt stands at one trillion dollars -- more than total national credit-card debt. In response, Texas governor Rick Perry challenged the state's public colleges and universities to devise bachelor degree programs costing no more than $10,000. The higher-education establishment's take on Perry's charge was summed up accurately in the title that the Austin-American Statesman gave its story covering the speech: "Perry's call for $10,000 bachelor's degrees stumps educators." At the time, average tuition and fees for a four-year degree at Texas universities stood above $27,000. Nevertheless, in short order, one university system stepped up to Perry's challenge. Texas A&M-San Antonio got the ball rolling in March of this year when it announced a new degree in Information Technology that will carry a tuition of just under $10,000.
Several weeks ago, the University of Texas' Permian Basin campus (UTPB) joined A&M. In so doing, proponents argue, the $10,000 degree has moved from a curiosity to something resembling a trend. Starting this fall, UTPB will offer five degree programs for under $10,000: bachelors of science degrees in chemistry, computer science, geology, information systems, and mathematics. Unlike the A&M-San Antonio $10,000 degree -- which combines high-school dual credit courses, one year at a local community college, and upper-division courses at the university -- all courses will be offered on the UTPB grounds, making it the first institution to offer a $10,000 degree on a single campus. The cost saving is substantial: UTPB currently charges more than $25,000 for in-state tuition and fees over four years.
The program has high admission standards -- students must be qualified to take pre-calculus upon entry -- and limited seats. Critics will seize on these points, and in so doing risk missing the bigger picture: since the governor issued his accountability challenge, the state's public universities have begun to engage in the sort of creative, disruptive work that reformers argue is indispensable to addressing the crisis in higher education costs. Given the logic of the competition ignited by the governor's charge, it is reasonable to expect more such variations on the $10,000-degree-theme in the future. As a result, watch tuitions start to fall elsewhere across the state and, likely, the nation.
No less a challenge than the cost of colleges today is the quality of the education they provide. The landmark national study published last year, Academically Adrift, tested a national sample of students and found a shockingly high percentage demonstrate little to no increase in learning after four full years in college. This has shaken the faith that the American people have long placed in higher education and produced calls for increased accountability. In response, last month Texas A&M University announced the launch of its "accountability dashboard," which will publish a variety of academic performance metrics in fulfillment of the university's "commitment to accountability in its pursuit of excellence." This is a significant development, despite the fact that the new site currently lacks faculty-specific data. Such specificity will be demanded by the public and will come in time, but what truly matters here is that the debate has shifted. The moral high ground has been captured by the side of reform. Why else would an "accountability dashboard" be initiated at all?
The prospect that the Texas model of higher-education reform will be replicated by other states is bolstered when one surveys the national scene. Spiraling tuitions and concomitant student-loan debt have of late come in the political crosshairs: conservatives have been hammering this issue for some time, and President Obama has recently joined the national discussion. Doubtless, the two sides disagree on solutions, but that both agree that it is a problem is an important new dynamic on the political horizon, one unlikely to fade soon.
Reformers across the nation would do well to seize on this new alignment of the political stars if they hope to bring to fruition the seeds planted by the Lone Star State. To this end, Texas' accountability initiative appears likely to prove more powerful in the long-run than the $10,000 degree, if reformers follow the logic of accountability and demand next that our public universities increase the transparency on which full accountability depends.
Transparency in two areas will bolster the cause of reform. First, the public has a right and a duty to learn what and how much students learn while enrolled in our public colleges and universities. Second, the public likewise deserves to know what the employment prospects are for the plethora of degrees universities offer today. The paramount need to measure and publicize student-learning outcomes became painfully clear last year with the publication of Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press). Adrift reports that 45 percent of the students in its national survey demonstrate little to no increase in general collegiate skills -- critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills -- after two years of college. After four full years in college, 36 percent continue to demonstrate no significant increase in learning, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). These depressing results serve as the rejoinder to former Harvard president Derek Bok's glib one-liner: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." Adrift puts the falsehood to Bok's dichotomy: today, we are all too often going to great expense and securing a great deal of ignorance nonetheless.
To their credit, the schools in the University of Texas System have been administering the CLA for eight years. Also, since 1997, all public colleges and universities in South Dakota are required to administer a comparable test, the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, to all their undergraduates. The rest of the nation would do well to follow Texas' and South Dakota's example. Indeed, at this writing, roughly 500 colleges and universities have volunteered to administer the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to their students. This trend can be expected to grow and, as it does, students, parents, and taxpayers will get a clearer sense of what they are getting in return for their education investment. But to make this transparency fully serve accountability, reformers should insist that each institution's CLA or CAAP score be broken down along the lines of schools, departments, and majors. Students and parents need to know how much learning the various majors offer at the particular schools in which they are contemplating enrolling.
An additional element of transparency, which would serve not only employers but society at large, would be for all universities to include on all student transcripts not only the grade the student received for each class, but also what the average grade in each class was. So doing would tell prospective employers whether or not a given student's high grade point average was the product of truly exceptional work or that of enrolling in a majority of what the previous generation called "gut" courses and today's students label "mick" (for Mickey Mouse) courses.
Of course, all of this information would need to be made accessible online, which could be done easily and at little expense.
Transparency is equally required when it comes to the market value of today's college degrees. At present, upon graduating, the average student will have incurred $25,000 in loan debt, which, with interest, could total as much as $40,000 by the end of the payment period. Accordingly, students and their parents have an urgent need to know what sort of career likely awaits upon receipt of a given college degree. As with the above measures of academic value, full transparency regarding market value requires breaking down projected average starting salaries by school, department, and major. Again, all of this information would need to be accessible online to the public.
It is easy to discern why momentum for these reforms is gathering steam: reformers recognize that these measures to increase transparency are indispensable to making students, parents, and taxpayers, more price- and quality-sensitive. These informed college consumers can then be expected to create market pressures on colleges and universities to make them more accountable for the tuitions they charge and the learning they provide. This approach speaks to and satisfies concerns in both the reform and education-establishment camps. Reformers tend to prefer transparency's "bottom up" mode of incentivizing schools over the central-planning approach that, in their view, has played no small role in bringing us to this crisis in the first place. And those in the education establishment concerned that institutional autonomy will be undermined by the reform agenda -- a complaint heard during Texas' ongoing higher-education battles -- must grant that these transparency measures do not force universities to do anything differently. All they ask of these tax-supported institutions is that they reveal to taxpayers what they are doing as clearly as possible.
This is why Texas' embryonic transparency initiative promises to be more revolutionary, both in Texas and the nation, than its $10,000-degree challenge, as welcome as the latter is. The moral high ground has shifted because the issue has now become the people's right to know. In our democratic republic, the people, once awakened, prove jealous of this right, and those who would seek to deny it do so at their political peril.
Thomas K. Lindsay is the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during President Bush's second term. He serves on the National Association of Scholars' board of directors.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on July 3, 2012.