Forget the $10,000 Bachelor's—Get an Associate's Degree


A graduating class of Storm Troopers
Credit: JD Hancock / Foter.com / CC BY

When President Obama recently pushed for legislation that he hopes will curb the relentless escalation of college costs by "rewarding colleges that keep tuition down and punishing those that do not," he was met with an apt criticism:

But such an approach "does smack of price controls," a technique the public might view as intrusive, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education in Washington.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) had another idea, and has been "call[ing] on institutions in his state to develop options for low-cost undergraduate degrees" since late 2011. The now-famous "$10,000 Bachelor's Degree" challenge may have started in Texas, but it has already spread to Florida and at least one online university: Excelsior College.

Joseph Rallo, president of Angelo State University in Texas, said: "The profile that we aim the degree for is the adult student who is interested in a broad degree…" Excelsior's Bachelor program is similarly wide open and relies heavily on independent study and a student's prior credits from other schools.

Cheap access to career-changing degrees seems an admirable goal—especially when taxpayers aren't asked to subsidize the endeavor.

But a cheap, generic Bachelor's may be a red herring. Liberal Arts degree holders suffer higher rates of unemployment than the national average (although Fox Business still seems pretty high on them), and the U.S. economy is lacking in recipients of degrees that are already cheaper than $10,000.

CNN reports:

Only 10% of American workers have the sub-baccalaureate degrees needed for middle-skills jobs, compared with 24% of Canadians and 19% of Japanese, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports.

It's not as if an Associate's degree damns students to a lifetime of low wages. In fact, surveys show that community college students who earn an Associate of Science degree tend to earn starting salaries of about $11,000 more per year than graduates of four-year programs. The gap closes if a student attends a private four-year university, but does the price-tag (in both time and money) justify the "reward"—and are companies likely to hold a $10,000 Bachelor's degree in high enough esteem to pay commensurate wages?

The April 2013 issue of Reason Magazine will feature a host of views on how to fix our falling college education system. Pick up a copy.