The $10K Undergrad Degree
Arthur C. Brooks, now prez of the American Enterprise Institute, did this in 1994 (and maybe it's somewhat more or quite a bit more now), but he had to be creative about getting an affordable education -- so he was. As would I have been if my parents weren't paying my then-reasonable in-state tuition for three years at the University of Michigan, where they'd both gone.
I almost quit school, but realized people have a prejudice against people who don't graduate, so I finished at NYU -- did one year there -- and wrote my way to a scholarship to pay for some of it, and worked nights and weekends to pay my living expenses in New York.
Had my parents not paid, I might have done what I advise kids who come from poor families to do (when I talk at a school) -- go to a good community college like Santa Monica college for two years, gotten great grades (which I always have, or at least good grades, because I'm a nerd) and then transferred to a better, four-year school.
Brooks writes in The New York Times of his more radical and more creative solution for keeping college costs down:
Fortunately, there was a solution -- an institution called Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. This is a virtual college with no residence requirements. It banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.
I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.
And the whole degree, including the third-hand books and a sticker for the car, cost me about $10,000 in today's dollars.
Now living back in the United States, I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.
Did I earn a worthless degree? Hardly. My undergraduate years may have been bereft of frissons, but I wound up with a career as a tenured professor at Syracuse University, a traditional university. I am now the president of a Washington research organization.
Not surprisingly, my college experience has occasionally been the target of ridicule. It is true that I am no Harvard Man. But I can say with full confidence that my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.
The 10K-B.A. is exactly the kind of innovation we would expect in an industry that is showing every indication of a bubble that is about to burst, as Thomas K. Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows in a new report titled, "Anatomy of a Revolution? The Rise of the $10,000 Bachelor's Degree." When tuition skyrockets and returns on education stagnate, we can expect a flight to value, especially by people who can least afford to ride the bubble, and who have no choice but to make a cost-effective college investment.
In the end, however, the case for the 10K-B.A. is primarily moral, not financial. The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream. That dream is the opportunity to build a life through earned success. That starts with education.
Of course, what makes college much more expensive now is the college loan craziness. The more government is willing to shell out in wild loans, the more wildly colleges jack up their prices -- and the salaries of their administrators. Who isn't getting the bucks? A good many of the teachers.