What Kind of Degree Can You “Buy” for $15,000 a Year?

A couple of weeks back, I provided a back-of-the-envelope calculation that said the cost of college (even at the best schools ) should be no more than $15,000 per year or $60,000 for a full four-year degree program if the price of a post-secondary education had risen at the same rate as buying a home.

I chose housing as a baseline since that’s another market where prices have significantly outpaced inflation, but nothing like the hyper-hyper-inflation that seems to have gripped the cost of college where my theoretical total cost for four years of college today pays for barely more than one year at most of the nation’s top private schools.

Now there are a number of questions this type of price dynamic raises regarding why college costs so much and is it worth it, not to mention arguments over the numbers themselves (since few people pay “list prices,” give the availability of scholarships, grants and loans). And I plan to look into those questions more deeply in this Friday’s newsletter (signups over to the right) as well as in future blog entries.

But given that present trends mean that someone born today may be looking at $50K+ per year to attend a state school or $200,000 per year to attend an elite private one, the search for alternatives to traditional degree programs that might be acceptable to the mainstream is only going to accelerate.

This craving for lower-cost options was on display during the early days of MOOC euphoria when some people saw free online classes as a full-fledged alternative to an expensive residential degree. But as appealing as free college for all might sound, the question I’d like to pose is a more pragmatic one, namely, is that aforementioned $15K per year enough to pay for a high-quality, degree-bearing, post-secondary educational experience? And one way to approach such a question is to take a look at what fifteen grand buys you today.

This can be a tricky task, given that subsidies (in the form of those aforementioned grants and loans, not to mention the taxpayer funded portions public school budgets) create a distance between list price and “cost of goods sold.” But if we put this complexity to the side for a moment, here are a few things you can get right now for $15K/year:

  • In-state tuition for most (albeit not all) state universities
  • In-state or out-of-state tuition at most (again, not all) community colleges
  • Tuition at a number of lesser well-known but still quality private schools that might lack some of the amenities associated with college and university life (such as serious sports teams or fancy dorms)

Now I’ve not included room and board in these cost of college numbers since, whether you’re paying $10-12K for a dorm room, that much (or more) for an off-campus apartment, or having your housing subsidized by parents (those last two options being requirements for all commuter students), kids have to live somewhere.

Also keep in mind that even if most of the people reading this carry warm memories of their own residential college experience, the majority of higher ed students today have chosen one of the options listed above (state school, community college or a non-Ivy private school). So even if my $15K per-year maximum (i.e., the price one should pay to attend Harvard if pricing for college had remained as “sane” as it’s been for housing), that does seem a sum many people are choosing as their threshold for affordability.

Speaking of Harvard, did you know that you can obtain a degree from that school for far less than $60,000 total? Well technically, it’s a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts degree from the Harvard Extension School where degree-bearing courses go for around $1000 a pop (bringing the cost for a BA to around $35K).

Now the Extension School has no dorms, no sports teams, no clubs or fraternities (although students in the program have their own communities and Extension students are free to engage in late-night bull sessions at Harvard Square coffee shops and bars as freely as can University undergraduates). And even though some professors from the Extension School also teach at the University, many courses are taught by lower-paid (albeit highly talented and qualified) adjuncts.

The difference between the low price of Harvard Extension and the high price of Harvard seems to imply that course-based education represents a percentage (and a relatively small one at that) of the total tab for the traditional residential college experience.

And it is in this gap that we may discover solutions for the soaring cost of earning a degree.

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