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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

March 17, 2014 at 5:00 AM

The promise of a $10,000 bachelor’s degree

Michael Osbun / Op Art

Michael Osbun / Op Art

Is it possible to create a bachelor’s degree that would cost students only $10,000?

A few years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott called on colleges to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. Critics argued that it was tantamount to the “Walmartization” of higher education. But those two states now offer a limited number of low-cost online degrees.

Earlier this month, Jean Floten — former president of Bellevue College and currently chancellor of Western Governors University-Washington — took part in a panel discussion on the merits of the low-cost degree at the South by Southwest education conference, or SXSWedu, the companion to the annual music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas.

“To me, it’s not so much the $10,000 degree, as it is that higher education needs to find better ways to deliver its content,” she said. “What can we do to be cheaper, faster, better?”

WGU-Washington — a nonprofit online university that has 6,000 full-time equivalent Washington students enrolled at this moment — is focused on competency to reduce the price of education, and Floten said she believes that’s part of the answer.

WGU breaks its curriculum down into smaller pieces organized around competency. Students take a pre-assessment when beginning a course, which determines if they already possess some of the skills the course will cover. If they score well, they can skip those parts of the curriculum they know and focus on learning those parts they don’t know. They’ll have to prove they know it all in order to pass the course, Floten said.

“To me, this is a sublimely simple model,” she said. “It breaks the last frontier, that everybody learns at the same time, in the same space.” Last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a letter urging institutions to look at competency-based education, rather than seat time, she said, and that’s given competency-based education more credence.

The competency-based model has helped drive WGU costs down, she said. Most WGU students finish a bachelor’s degree from the online university in about 30 months, and pay about $15,000 to $18,000.

Floten said her ideas were well-received at SXSWedu, although her toughest question came from a magazine reporter in the audience who wanted to know if his fondest memories of college — deep discussions of great books — were going to go the way of the dinosaur.

It’s difficult to replicate that experience online, Floten agreed. But “for a mid-career adult who already has social circles, and a pretty clear idea about what the next move is, a focused degree that’s competency-based is probably the best answer.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: higher ed, SXSW, Western Governors University

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