This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on January 30, 2016.
In his 2011 State of the State Address, then-Texas-Governor Rick Perry issued a bully-pulpit challenge to the Lone Star State’s public universities. He asked them to create bachelor’s degree programs that cost no more than $10,000 in tuition, fees, and books. He also asked that ten percent of Texas public university degrees awarded reach this price point. How would it be accomplished? Perry advised schools to reduce costs through offering some classes online as well as through awarding course credits based on competencies acquired outside the classroom, such as during military service and/or previous employment.
Note well that the governor did not ask that the price for the new degrees total no more than $10,000 for only one academic year, but rather, for the full four years of a bachelor’s degree program.
Perry’s challenge was met with a mixture of disbelief and derision. The chairman of the Travis County Democrats called Perry’s idea “preposterous,” adding that “nobody in higher education believes that is even possible.” The president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, wondered, “Do you really want a stripped-down, bare-bones degree?”
There was a basis for their skepticism. In 2011, the average Texas public university student was paying roughly $27,000 for tuition, books, and fees for four years, and prices looked only to be going up further.
That was then. But this is now. Unlike the defenders of the higher-education status quo, prospective college students and their parents—who have suffered from a quarter-century of tuition hyperinflation and burgeoning student-loan debt—thought a proposal like Perry’s might be exactly what was needed. A contemporaneous Pew study found that 57 percent of prospective students believe a college degree no longer carries a value worth the cost. Seventy-five percent of respondents deem college unaffordable.
Some in Texas public higher education recognized the public’s angst. So, one year after Perry’s speech, roughly a dozen programs sprouted up around the state, all purporting to answer the governor’s call.
Then, in 2014, three higher-education partners—Texas A&M University-Commerce, South Texas College, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB)—launched a program that fully met the governor’s vision: the “Texas Affordable Baccalaureate” (TAB) Program,Texas’s first public university bachelor’s degree combining online learning and competency-based standards. Its new degree in Organizational Leadership can cost as little as $750 per term and allows students to receive credit for as many course competencies as they are able to master. Although the program aims first at returning adults, those entering with no previously earned credits can acquire their degree in three years at a total cost of between $13,000 and $15,000. At the other end of the spectrum, adults entering with 90 credit hours already earned can finish their degree in as little as a year and at a total cost of between $4,500 and $6,000.
Given the excitement over the first Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Program, it was only a question of time before it expanded beyond the campuses of A&M-Commerce and South Texas College.
That time came last week, when AT&T President, Dave Nichols, Texas State Comptroller, Glenn Hegar, and the THECB chairman, Bobby Jenkins, announced that AT&T would be contributing an additional $400,000 to THECB’s College for All Texans Foundation to fund expansion of the TAB program from its current two campuses to ten, with the intention of enrolling more than 21,000 students over its first five years.
Under the new AT&T grant, public institutions of higher education in the state will compete for start-up funding for a TAB program of their own. Commenting on the new funding initiative, THECB’s Jenkins noted, “Expansion of the TAB program is a key to achieving the state’s “60x30TX” higher education goals for completion, marketable skills, managing student debt, and ensuring that at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a college degree or certificate by 2030.” Most importantly, Jenkins added, “the TAB program, with its competency-based model, allows our institutions to serve the non-traditional students that are the new majority in higher education, such as military veterans, older, working students and Texans with some prior college credit but no degree.”
Jenkins’s latter point is noteworthy, because it is far from common knowledge. We still tend to think of college-going students as consisting predominantly of 18-22-year-olds who attend a residential campus fulltime. This is no longer the case. Today, the majority of those seeking some sort of postsecondary education—be it a two-year degree, a four-year degree, or a certificate—are nontraditional students. They are over the age of 25 and/or working fulltime and/or supporting families of their own. For this, the new majority, access to a traditional college education can be difficult if not well-nigh impossible.
Moreover, in 2014, according to THECB estimates, 3.1 million Texans between the ages of 25 and 64 had earned some college credits but no degree. For this large demographic, the expansion of the TAB Program might prove a godsend and, in the process, bolster the state’s progress toward its 60X30TX goals.
Expansion of the TAB Program should also help alleviate somewhat the fiscal pressure on the state’s budget produced by the Hazlewood Exemption Act, which offers veterans, spouses, and their dependent children up to 150 credit hours of tuition exemption, including many fee charges, at Texas public institutions of higher education. In the last Texas legislative session, concern over the cost of this program led to efforts to cut back benefits.
The efforts failed. However, expansion of the TAB Program will reduce the costs borne by public universities, and thus by the state’s taxpayers. Although schools offering the TAB Program will continue to shoulder all the expenses of the Hazlewood Exemption, these schools spend significantly less to educate TAB students than they do traditional students. In addition, the TAB program looks to be tailor-made for veterans, whose military training often satisfies a number of competency-based criteria. In short, under the TAB Program, veterans will be able to get their degrees more quickly and universities will be able to lessen the financial burden they bear in teaching them.
On a number of fronts, then, the expansion of the TAB Program is encouraging news for Texans. And as the program begins it expansion across Texas, it is reasonable to expect that the other 49 states will sit up and take notice. As I have argued elsewhere, a higher-education revolution could well be in the making.