In 2011, then-Texas Governor Rick Perry called on the Lone Star State’s public four-year universities to craft affordable bachelor’s degrees, what the Governor labeled at the time, “$10,000 degrees.”

Texas universities have risen to the challenge. In late 2013, the first Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Degree was launched by Texas A&M-Commerce and South Texas College. The new program commenced with “seven enrolled students and grew to more than 300 students and 121 program graduates by the fall of 2016.” The Affordable Baccalaureate Degree combines online study with a competency-based format, meaning that students can get credit for competencies already acquired in the workforce and/or during military service. This lowers both cost and reduces significantly the time it takes to graduate.

Impressed with the success of the new program, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) announced in March 2017 that it was awarding grants to four new Texas Affordable Baccalaureate programs. The grants, totaling more than $650,000, will go to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Tarleton State University, South Texas College (in partnership with Austin Community College), and Texas A&M University-Commerce.

According to a press advisory issued by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the new grants will “support the planning, development and implementation of the institutions’ new affordable baccalaureate programs.”

Commenting on the progress of the new program, Commissioner of The Higher Education Coordinating Board, Raymund Paredes, observed, “The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate is a cost-effective option to provide greater socioeconomic mobility for a greater number of Texans. The state must continue to innovate and provide cost-effective, high-quality education that meets the needs of an ever-changing global economy while providing greater opportunity and prosperity for Texans. The Coordinating Board welcomes these four new programs.”

The fundraising for the expansion of the Affordable Baccalaureate programs was supported by the College for All Texans Foundation. The grants were secured from AT&T Aspire, the Greater Texas Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Meadows Foundation. Grant recipients submitted applications and were selected through a competitive review process.

When Texas A&M-Commerce and South Texas College launched the first Affordable Baccalaureate Degree program, the new degree established was the Bachelor’s in Organization Leadership. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi plans to employ its funds to craft an Affordable Baccalaureate program in mechanical engineering technology. The program will “incorporate competency-based curriculum to prepare workers with a skillset that is needed for employment in areas such as the refinery and process industries, among others, as projected by workforce needs. The program will also provide an opportunity for engineering technology associate degree holders to pursue opportunities and career paths as engineering technologists, helping to close the gap between the Coastal Bend Workforce Development Area and the rest of the country.”

Tarleton State University plans to employ its grant to the end of creating “alternative credit courses to reduce costs and time-to-degree for students” in its B.S. in applied science program. Through “combining a hybrid-delivery model with an alternative credit model for general education courses,” this program will look to “provide a path to an affordable baccalaureate degree for nontraditional students who have completed technical or occupational specializations from a community college or technical school, or during military training.”

South Texas College will join with Austin Community College (ACC) to craft “coursework, support services, and an articulation agreement for a 100% online, competency-based bachelor of applied technology (BAT) degree in computer information technology (CIT).” Under the new arrangement, “all of the existing competency-based courses in ACC’s associate of applied science (AAS) in computer programming will seamlessly transfer into South Texas College’s newly developed, competency-based BAT in CIT.” Through this, they hope to provide “students an affordable fast-track to some of the most in-demand information technology (IT) occupations in Texas and beyond.”

Texas A&M University-Commerce will employ its new grant to craft a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice, which will take the form of “a hybrid competency-based online program for certified first responders, military personnel, and adult learners with criminal justice employment experience.” This competency-based criminal justice degree is “designed to assist this nontraditional professional population by providing a more affordable option for degree completion.” Moreover, given the importance of students’ post-graduation employment, the curriculum “will be designed so that competencies and learning outcomes are tied to specific lower division courses.” This lower-cost, competency-based program offers students the opportunity to “work at a pace that is most appropriate for their level of ability in a forum that allows for self-paced learning in an online learning platform.”

These efforts provide the Texas Legislature a solid foundation for the next step needed, which is to expand the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Programs statewide. To make college more affordable for more Texans, each public university should have at least one bachelor’s degree under the Affordable Baccalaureate program.

As I detailed in this study, the Texas Legislature had opportunities during both the 84th and 85th sessions to expand the Affordable Baccalaureate Program to all Texas public universities, but declined to do so.

The legislation proposed in the 85th Legislature, HB 385, was titled, “An act relating to the elimination of certain formula funding and dropped course restrictions for students enrolled in accelerated, affordable baccalaureate programs at public institutions of higher education.” It sought to remove a number of the barriers currently impeding both universities and nontraditional students who seek an Affordable Baccalaureate Program. These barriers deny formula funding to Texas universities for students who:

  • have taken more than 30 hours past their degree requirements, counting courses taken at both the community college and four-year Texas public university level;
  • have dropped more than six courses during their time in Texas public universities and/or community colleges;
  • have repeated a course three times.
  • The Texas Legislative Budget Board found “no significant impact” when it issued its fiscal note on the bill.

To enhance college affordability and therewith increase graduation and completion rates, this bill seeks to incentivize universities to follow the groundbreaking lead of Texas A&M-Commerce/South Texas College’s Affordable Baccalaureate Program. This will likely happen on a statewide basis most quickly if universities receive formula funding for students enrolled in Affordable Baccalaureate Programs. To do this requires removing the “no-formula-funding” barriers to entry into these programs by the primary constituents served by the Affordable Baccalaureate Program—nontraditional students enrolling and/or returning to college.

Today, so-called “nontraditional students”—meaning, those who are over 25, and/or working fulltime, and/or with families of their own to support—constitute the majority of students seeking some sort of postsecondary education or training. The Affordable Baccalaureate Degree fits perfectly with the needs of this, the new majority of postsecondary students. On this group, the future prosperity of the Lone Star State will depend.