In this year’s State of the State address, Governor Perry called for the state’s public universities to begin offering a BA with a total cost (including tuition, fees and textbooks) of $10,000, in contrast to the current rates of between $26,800 and $45,300. If we include the cost to taxpayers, the total bill at UT-Austin runs to at least $95K. Three universities have risen to the challenge: Sul Ross State, Texas A&M at San Antonio, and UT-Permian. The state’s three elite universities (UT-Austin, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech) should follow suit, offering an education in the liberal arts and sciences for a total cost to students of $10K, and with virtually no net cost to their existing programs, and no new subsidy from the taxpayer.

How is this possible? Through three simple steps: (1) hire new instructors (through sub-contracts) who teach undergraduates full-time, without tenure and without research responsibilities, (2) make full use of the internet, with a library of videos by great lecturers and by extensive use of small-class video conferencing, and (3) eliminate waste by using classrooms and labs at times when they are currently empty (early mornings, evenings, weekends, and summer sessions). Most classrooms at the elite universities lie empty except for high demand times between 10 and 3 in the two traditional 15-week semesters,

Students in our elite state universities earn most of their credits in large lecture courses. The word ‘lecture’ dates from the Middle Ages, meaning ‘reading’. In the days before the printing press, when books were rare, it made sense for students to fill lecture halls so they could hear their teachers read aloud. What is still our standard operating procedure in higher education is now at least five hundred years out of date. With the availability of video recording and the internet, the old methods make less and less sense.

Instead of benefiting from the best lectures by the State’s best teachers, students today are instead forced into an instructional lottery each semester, with many forced to cope with mediocre lecturers. In addition, the only people who assess student learning are those who are charged with teaching them, creating an obvious conflict of interest: few professors are willing to admit that they have failed to impart knowledge to their students.  The lack of independent assessment of student learning means that teachers cannot be evaluated for the quality of their instruction, beyond mere entertainment value.

We need to take the following steps:

1. Focus on twelve of the traditional liberal arts and sciences: such as physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, English, and economics. If students want to major in ‘boutique’ subjects like Asian-American Studies or Urban Studies, they can continue to pay the current tuition rates.

2. Offer a three-year bachelor’s program, requiring 90 credits. Three-year bachelor’s degrees have been the norm for centuries in Great Britain, with no negative consequences there. A well-designed curriculum can teach more in three years than most students are now gaining in six.

3. Streamline the curriculum by eliminating electives and standardizing courses. The $10K BA could comprise a twelve-course core, a sixteen-course major, and a two-course minor.

4. Select the State’s top scholars and scientists to design the courses, videotape the best lecturers, purchase the rights to the best textbook materials, and design a suite of web-based learning tools. This would require a significant one-time investment, drawn from the State’s Permanent University Fund (which generates over $500 million in income each year). For first-rate education in the 21st century, we need intellectual property, not more bricks and mortar.

5. Charge students only $333 per course, for a total price of $10K.

Each instructor could meet with small groups of five for 1.5 hours a week to discuss their papers and projects. With just 30 hours of instruction a week, each instructor could teach 100 students in each of three semesters (45 weeks), generating $100K in annual tuition. Given the huge over-supply of PhDs in all of the arts and sciences, we could find excellent instructors who would happily teach full-time for $70K in salary plus $21K in benefits, with 10% left over for administrative overhead.

6. Offer state-wide tests for each year of each program, providing an accurate and disinterested measure of student learning. The College Learning Assessment, as well as CLEP and GRE Subject exams, could be used to measure students’ progress in critical thinking, logic, writing skills, as well as discipline-specific competencies. These results could be used to evaluate both courses and instructors on a rigorous, value-added basis.

The availability of such efficient and streamlined programs would dramatically increase the accessibility of higher education to the young people of Texas, providing Texas with the world’s best-educated workforce, as well as a citizenry solidly grounded in the time-tested disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences.