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College costs: $10,000 degree sounds good, but, really, it's not so simple

By Longview News-Journal
Oct. 9, 2012 at 11 p.m.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has renewed his call for the state's universities to offer bachelor's degrees, or at least some of them, for a flat $10,000 - and he wants the Legislature to put that in a form that will carry some teeth in the world of higher education.

Last week, he was out pitching that and his other ideas for making tuition more affordable. Those include freezing tuition rates for four years for incoming freshmen, providing more information regarding tuition, and linking 10 percent of a university's state funding to graduation rates and other performance measures rather than enrollment.

We couldn't agree more that the cost of a college education is too high. Tuition and fees have increased 55 percent since the 2003 Legislature deregulated tuition rates, a Dallas Morning News analysis found last month.

As costs have continued to increase, we have managed to price more people who want a college education right out of the ability to get it.

That is a shame, particularly in an age where jobs are scarce and education of some sort beyond high school is almost a necessity to compete for them. Yes, there are still people who can be successful without higher education, but they are the exception to the rule. It isn't a path we would advise anyone to take - and it's one fewer Texans apparently want to follow.

As Perry pointed out Saturday in a column on this page, the latest SAT test results show more Texas students are taking the college entrance exam than ever before, hoping to seek a college education.

So, in one sense, we completely agree with the governor's flat-tuition plan, and his plan for a freshman tuition freeze. Unfortunately, we have the suspicion he is using smoke and mirrors. Perry doesn't want to help universities meet the goal by making up the difference in the lost tuition, he wants them simply to cut expenses to be able to offer flat-rate or frozen-price degrees.

The idea behind deregulation in 2003 was to give universities a way to increase revenue, thus allowing the state to reduce funding to its universities. Now, the governor is saying tuition rates are too high and the state will further reduce funding if something isn't done.

We have no doubt most universities, especially the big ones, could do some cost cutting. But it is a ludicrous stretch to argue the average four-year degree, which now costs $34,324, could be reduced to that $10,000 level with a nip here and a tuck there.

We do not believe Perry is advocating that universities charge less than their actual cost, which would be a recipe not just for disaster but for outright failure. Rather, Perry apparently just picked a number, $10,000, decided it sounded good and went with it.

In fact, it does sound good. And what seems too good to be true almost always is. We should be careful to not let the governor pull a fast one on us.

Giving Perry the benefit of the doubt, it could be he is simply firing a warning shot to the state's flagship universities that costs are out of control and need to be reeled in. Perhaps the message is that if they don't do something, and do it quickly, the Legislature will take matters into its own hands.

If that is the tactic, we agree and hope Perry is successful in forcing less expensive tuition. A few smaller universities do offer specialized degrees for $10,000, but they are designed for older learners who have life experience and can avoid some classes. An Austin American-Statesman review a couple of months ago of the few $10,000 degrees now available show they didn't include major costs such as textbooks, and rely heavily on financial aid to get to the magic number.

We don't believe the Legislature will get too wrapped up in this one, but we've been wrong before. After all, which of us would ever have thought the Legislature would do what it has done to cripple public education?

Public education in Texas already ranks near the bottom among the 50 states. Do we really want to start taking steps that would put our higher education in the same jeopardy?

We think not.



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