Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rick Perry and the $10,000 BA

Texas governor Rick Perry, soon to be (we hear) a Republican Presidential candidate, has tried all sorts of ways to shake up university education in Texas. He has floated lots of ideas, most of them half-baked, along the way generating lots of anger among academics and enthusiasm among rich Republicans. I find the sound and fury misplaced, since he has not really done much of anything, but I suppose that is the way of the political world. The act that has gotten the most attention was posting the salaries of A&M professors online, with those who bring in more money than they cost in black and the rest in red.

One of his schemes was to challenge Texas universities to offer a bachelor's degree for $10,000, "including books." He has been purposefully vague about how this might be done; his idea, it seems (to the extent that he thought this out at all) was to propose the goal and let university officials, who would be (he assumed) excited by the challenge of offering a degree poor Texans could afford, work out the details. Of course, this has met nothing but mockery from university quarters.

I actually think it is an intriguing idea, not for UT or A&M but for some smaller school: set up one college around the goal of the $10,000 degree and see how it might be done. That school might end up with terrible facilities, no extracurricular activities, and a faculty consisting of a few deans and lots of adjuncts. The school would have to be in Houston or Dallas, near a large pool of working class students who could live at home or in cheap apartments. What would it be like? Would it deliver a terrible education? Or would it be a valuable addition to the UT system, a bargain-basement alternative to schools that spend more of their budgets on football, nice dorms, and gigantic administrative structures than on teaching, and which pay senior engineering professors $500,000 a year?

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