When Florida Governor Rick Scott announced earlier this week the creation of two four-year, $10,000 bachelor’s degree programs in Florida, he could have easily been mistaken for another Republican governor named Rick.
Less than two years ago Texas Governor Rick Perry called on his state’s colleges and universities to create bachelor’s-degree programs that cost families no more than $10,000. The call set off a firestorm of debate about whether it was possible to control or lower the cost of offering a degree through the use of technology and competency-based assessment, or whether it was possible to find alternative subsidies that would drop the price for students and their families.
Perry and Scott appear to agree on much more than an ideal price tag. The two -- along with another Scott, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who unveiled his own higher education agenda earlier this month -- appear to be at the forefront of what could be an emerging Republican approach to higher education policy, built largely around cost-cutting, which seems to appeal to some voters, if not to the academy itself.
The three governors have much in common when it comes to their approach to higher education, such as mandating low-cost options like the $10,000 degree; holding down tuition prices, particularly at flagship institutions; tying funding to degree completion, particularly in fields deemed to be in “high demand”; paying faculty on the basis of performance, including how they fare on student evaluations; and likely asking the institutions to do it all with less state money.
With state budgets still constrained, college costs are a growing concern for the electorate, Republicans holding 30 governor’s offices, and many of these lawmakers poised for higher profile in the next four years as they contemplate higher office, it seems likely that the proposals seen in places such as Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin will spread, and could even form the backbone of a Republican agenda for higher education from the states up through the national government.
“Up until now, the argument over college affordability has been dominated by calls to action on two fronts: lower interest rates on student loans and asking taxpayers to pay more so state legislatures can increase funding to higher education a greater amount,” said Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank with ties to Perry and associated with the reforms the Texas governor and others are pushing. “What this does, this changes the debate to reducing the cost to students and parents, raising expectations about what the public expects from higher education.”
But the approach taken by these governors has not endeared them to individuals in the academy. Actions taken by all three have been sharply criticized not only by faculty members and higher education leaders in their states, but also by national leaders, who view the erosion of state funding and increased restrictions on what institutions can do a breach of the traditional relationship between state lawmakers and public colleges and universities. “There are state leaders who do not believe in public support of public higher education, and who do not understand what an education at a research university means,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities in a speech at the University of Virginia in October. Rawlings specifically called out Perry and Scott in that speech and in others.
Tea for Three
Perry, who was elected to his third term as governor in 2010, and Scott and Walker, who were both elected for the first time that year, all ran on “Tea Party” platforms of cutting government expenditures, lowering taxes and creating jobs.
Like all governors serving over the past few years, all three had to reconcile decreased revenues stemming from the great recession with increased entitlement costs. Higher education appropriations, which make up a large chunk of discretionary expenditures at the state level, became a target.
“There isn’t that much of the operating budget to play with, so education routinely becomes a piece of the budget that ends up on the chopping block,” said Christopher P. Loss, a professor of history and public policy at Vanderbilt University.
Loss said it would be a mistake to call cutting higher education budgets a purely Republican strategy, as it seems to be a bipartisan activity these days. States such as California, Washington and New York, where Democrats control governors’ offices and legislatures, have also cut budgets for higher education over the past few years, although recent budgets in New York have been more favorable to colleges, and California Governor Jerry Brown recently led a campaign for a tax increase that will reduce cuts to higher education.
Loss did note, however, that tying budget cuts to calls for increased productivity, something that Perry and Scott have done repeatedly, is something with the potential to appeal to voters. “I would hesitate to call it part of a ‘Republican agenda,’ " Loss said. “In essence, this is part of what governors do when they confront financial constraints. And it’s a politically savvy direction in which to go.”
While lawmakers have traditionally granted institutions the freedom to find new sources of revenues through tuition or elsewhere when they cuts budgets or promised to restore budgets in better times, Perry, Scott, Walker, and other Republican governors have made it clear that tuition will hold steady in their states. In 2011, Perry and Scott pushed against efforts by their states’ flagship institutions to raise tuition prices, a move that many in Texas say almost cost William Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, his job.
All three have made calls for reducing the cost of producing a degree through online courses and competency-based assessment. Walker introduced a competency-based online program earlier this year. Last year Perry created a Texas subsidiary of Western Governors University, a nonprofit competency-based online institution. This week he announced a competency-based technical training.
Scott and Walker have called for reducing faculty protections, either in the form of unions or tenure, which they say could potentially lower labor costs.
The calls for efficiency are embodied in the $10,000 degree, which sets a goal for institutions but doesn’t require lawmakers to get their hands dirty with working out the policy details. “When the person who holds political office uses his bully pulpit to call for this, it has the same effect that a market innovation would have in the free market,” Lindsay said. “Now you see all these institutions scurrying around to try to match it.”
|Florida (Rick Scott)||Texas (Rick Perry)||Wisconsin (Scott Walker)|
|Collect data on faculty members' efficiency and effectiveness|
|Reward faculty members for performance, including on the basis of student evaluations|
|Restrict collective bargaining rights||n/a|
|Focus on "high-demand" fields|
|Performance funding based on graduation rates|
|Limit tuition increases at flagship institutions|
|Limited state appropriations increases|
Who’s in the Black?
While “efficiency” measures have been a major part of their agendas, Perry, Scott, and Walker also have plans for reforming what happens in the classroom, which makes them stand out among Republican lawmakers.
Perry, who has been in office since 2000, was the first of the trio to push a slate of reforms, many of which originated at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank to which he has close ties. The most prominent group of those reforms is known as the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a group of reforms focused on improving undergraduate instruction by more closely trying faculty rewards – pay, promotion, and tenure – to excellence in teaching. They also call for new measurements of teaching effectiveness and splitting research and teaching budgets.
E-mails obtained by state media outlets show that Perry personally pushed board members to move forward on adopting some of the reforms.
Both the University of Texas and the Texas A&M University systems produced reports that measured faculty salaries against the number of students they taught and the amount of money they brought in through research, labeling some as profitable and some as unprofitable. The listing generated a backlash from faculty members.
Faculty members in humanities departments, which tend to have smaller classes and generate less revenue from research, were more likely to end up "in the red," with the lists saying they did not generate revenue worthy of their salaries.
When Scott took office in 2011, he reportedly spoke with some of the thought leaders behind the Texas policies. According to media reports, Scott sends all potential higher education board appointees a copy of the Foundation’s “Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education” and interviews them all personally to see if they would be willing to put such reforms in place in Florida.
The ‘Right’ Degrees
Many governors from all across the spectrum have adopted funding metrics based on outcomes rather than enrollment, but a major component of Walker's and Scott's efforts has been to more directly tie degree production to the perceived needs of the states’ employers, a push that has also led to antagonism toward faculty members in arts and humanities disciplines.
In an interview with The Herald-Tribune last year, Scott notoriously questioned whether it was in the state’s interest to graduate students with degrees in anthropology. He doubled down on the sentiment in a radio interview, saying, "It's a great degree if people want to get it. But we don't need them here."
These governors have emphasized degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as more professional degrees, such as teaching and business, rather than humanities. A gubernatorial task force in Florida recently proposed charging students who major in humanities disciplines more to discourage them from entering those fields.
In his speech last week, Walker embraced a similar sentiment, saying that the state should reward institutions for producing some types of degrees over others. "We’re going to tie our funding in our technical colleges and our University of Wisconsin System into performance and say if you want money, we need you to perform, and particularly in higher education, we need you to perform not just in how many people you have in the classroom,” Walker said in a speech in California on Nov. 19. "In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?"
Spread of Ideas
The policies pushed by Perry, Scott, and Walker have already generated significant local and national debate, and Scott’s adoption of some of Perry’s ideas show that there is likely room for them to spread.
Lindsay said lawmakers from several other states, both Democrats and Republicans, have approached him and the Texas Public Policy Foundation about their ideas.
Higher education policy researchers said the push for $10,000 degrees and other reforms pushed by the three governors appeal to voters because they’re simple and comprehensible, and don’t require lawmakers themselves to figure out the details.
Countless reports over the past two years have pointed to a decreased wiliness to pay high tuition prices and increased questioning of the value of a college degree.
“What I like about Rick Perry’s [$10,000-degree] idea is that it at least is a conversation starter,” said Joni Finney, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. “It gets people thinking about what it takes to provide a four-year degree, for enriching and proving students with that they need. I think any conversation about the cost of higher education is valuable, because we don’t stand on solid ground on that issue. Right now, the cost is whatever amount of money the institution has. We need to start talking about what are reasonable costs. Whether the number is $10,000 or $12,000 or a lot more, putting a number out there at least forced people to think about it."
Tying degree production to the states’ perceived needs is also an appealing prospect, since ensuring a well-paid job upon graduation is a major concern for families. The move also appeals to state businesses.
The 2012 Republican platform showed how greatly these ideas had penetrated the Republican policy mainstream “It is time to get back to basics and to higher education programs directly related to job opportunities,” the platform states. “Public policy should advance the affordability, innovation, and transparency needed to address all these challenges and to make accessible to everyone the emerging alternatives, with their lower-cost degrees, to traditional college attendance."
That’s not to say such ideas are already dominating the Republican conversation. There are competing Republican visions about higher education reform. States such as North Dakota and Wyoming – long controlled by Republicans – were some of the only states to see an increase in per-student state expenditures over the past five years. Both were buoyed by large influxes of revenues from natural resources.
And the discussion about many of these issues is not limited to one side of the aisle. Democrats, particularly President Barack Obama and his administration, have also pushed to contain costs to families at public universities, improve accountability for outcomes and ensure that students graduate with degree that lead to good jobs.
Making an Enemy
While the reforms pushed by Perry, Scott, and Walker have received praise from some pundits and members of the general public, faculty members and others in higher education have generally resisted their efforts.
The general sentiment among faculty members is that the reforms being pushed in states like Texas and Florida – lower expenditures on higher education, more vocational degrees at the expense of liberal arts education, less emphasis on research and more online courses – will not resulted in a better-educated workforce.
In Florida and Wisconsin, academics say that the proposals to discourage enrollment in humanities programs reflect a poor understanding of academe and the kinds of communication and creative skills that are prized in the working world. They point to studies showing that students with liberal arts backgrounds who can draw connections between disciplines and ideas are more likely to create new companies, take risks and earn promotions.
A major faculty criticism of the $10,000 degree programs is a concern that institutions will sacrifice quality, relying on technology, large classes, competency-based credit, and other tools that they say water down the educational experience. Close analyses of the $10,000 degree programs that have been created in Texas find that they are not truly getting at many of the issues for which pundits celebrate them. Most are not broadly available; students must spend time in high school taking dual-enrollment college courses, something many students are not prepared to do.They are all only available in specific programs. Some tinker with pricing more than cost, subsidizing students in the $10,000 degree programs at the expense of other students who pay full tuition, rather like offering non-need-based scholarships.
The Florida programs for Scott's announcement use similar tools to achieve the price reduction.
Proponents of the $10,000 degree say that this is the kind of experimentation the proposal was designed to induce. Eventually, they say, the goal is to help get at broader cost-cutting solutions.
In a column Monday, Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab noted the use of such strategies at Daytona State College, which offers a $10,000 degree for students who finish in three years. "Students are actually receiving less for less — a year less instruction and experience on a college campus in exchange for less money," she wrote. "That seems fair, but not some innovative deal the state should be crowing over."
Other critics point out that with greater state investment colleges could very well offer bachelor's degree programs for $10,000 or less. In-state tuition at the University of Florida in 2000, when state contributions made up a larger share of the budget, was less than $2,500. But as the state decreased its appropriations to the university, administrators say, it had to increase tuition to maintain quality.
“What you have is the legislature wanting to bail on the priority of higher education,” said Tom Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida and president of the United Faculty of Florida. “You’re going to be awarding degrees that are worthless to people. They’ll have bachelor’s degrees, but they won’t know what they’ve missed until three or four years out of school.”
He said faculty members have been particularly active in pushing against the reforms advocated by Scott, and expects many to be active in the campaign against his re-election in 2014.
“I’m not pessimistic about winning this argument,” Auxter said. “I’m just uneasy about how much we might lose before we ultimately win.”
Roberto Martinez, vice chairman of the Florida Board of Education, who was appointed by Scott’s predecessor, wrote Scott urging him to abandon the $10,000-degree idea. "Asking the colleges at this time to issue a ‘$10,000 bachelor's degree' without commensurately increasing state funding is, I am certain, well-intentioned, but a very bad idea."
A group of prominent Texans, many of them Republicans, organized the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group in opposition of many of the reforms pushed by Perry and others.
And on a national scale, Rawlings and others have begun publicly advocating against the reforms advocated by governors like Perry and Scott.
But even if higher education leaders reject these governors’ ideas, Lindsay said the move by Walker, Perry, Scott, and others to put the cost of a degree – not just to families by to the institution and taxpayers -- front-and-center in the debate, has forced Democrats to talk more broadly about the price of college, which he says has irreversibly changed the course of the debate.
“It would very much be in Democrats’ interest not to let the Republicans be seen as party of college affordability,” Lindsay said. “I don’t think that will last for long. I think before too long we’ll see both sides embracing this.”