This new $10,000 degree has everyone talking — for good reason

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College for America offers the first nationally-available $10,000 Bachelor's of Arts in the U.S. (Photo: College for America)

It’s impossible to deny the appeal of a $10,000 college degree.

Average tuition for a public university is more than $35,000 for four years, while students leave college with an average $29,400 in loans. Who wouldn’t get behind an effort to offer bachelor’s degrees that won’t shackle young people to debt for decades after they graduate?

For the last few years, state lawmakers and higher education leaders alike have been desperately trying to figure out a way to make that dream a reality, with varying degrees of success. Governors in Texas and Florida got more than two dozen state colleges to offer degrees for $10,000 or less in 2013, but both initiatives, which critics panned as a political gimmick, failed to catch on in other states.

An innovative new program offered by a branch of Southern New Hampshire University may breathe new life into the $10,000 degree movement, however.

The College for America, an online offshoot of SNHU, will launch the first-ever nationally available $2,500-per-year Bachelor’s degree this fall. It’s a milestone for the CFA, which previously launched a pilot Associate’s degree program in 2013. What sets this program apart from others is that its curriculum is competency-based, meaning it doesn't follow the traditional credit-based model most college students are used to.

Each competency represents a section of the course and there are 240 different competencies in all.  For each competency completed, students take a series of pass/fail assessment tests as they go, rather than sitting for exams and earning credit hours based on their grades. For example, a communications major would have to pass a competency test in “how to leverage social media” and “how to conduct research,” among other skills.

“We’re really building a degree that’s designed to be as applicable as possible to the workplace,” says Colin Van Ostern, a spokesman for the college. “It’s a respected degree like you’d receive at any other school.”  

But is the $10,000 competency-based degree just another gimmick, or is it the college cost panacea we’ve all been waiting for?

Here's what you need to know:

No kids allowed. 

Most competency-based programs specifically target working adults who need flexible study options. College for America is even more selective. It partners with more than 50 companies to recruit students directly from their pool of existing employees. So far, their corporate partners include McDonald’s and Blue Cross Blue Shield, as well as non-profit organizations and private hospital systems.  

“When it comes to traditional, full-time young undergraduate students, that’s not a market that is typically the focus of competency-based education,” says Daniel Hurley, a government relations and policy expert for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. These degrees are most appropriate for people mid-career who are looking to get a degree to give them an edge with employers.

Since CFA students all carry full- or part-time job responsibilities, most tend to base their study schedule around work. Because of the way competency-based courses are structured, there’s no penalty if they’re having a busy week at work or need a few days off to care for a sick child — they’re free to drop and pick up class work on their own timetable.

Students may not qualify for federal student aid.

College for America is one of just a handful of online schools offering competency-based degrees online, including the University of Wisconsin System’s UW Flexible Option and Western Governor’s University. Although Western Governor’s, which has been around for over a decade, has been approved for federal student aid, the same can’t be said for CFA and UW. UW hasn't been approved to offer federal student aid yet, and so far the CFA can only offer financial aid to students enrolled in its Associate's degree program. However, because many of the companies CFA partners with offer tuition reimbursement to employees, their costs can be even lower than the $2,500-a-year sticker price.  

They can give you a leg up at work.

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Darby Conley (right), 35, graduated from College for America's associate's degree program in May.

For College for America, the benefit of partnering directly with businesses is two-fold. It knows exactly which skills will be most applicable to students’ fields of work, and students don’t have to worry about wasting their money on a degree their employers won’t value. As the majority of its partners are in the health care space, the CFA offers a health care management degree and a broader business communications degree.

Partners Healthcare, a non-profit health care system and the largest private employer in Massachusetts, was among the first to sign up to work with CFA.

“Many of our employees are working multiple jobs. They’re customer service representatives and medical assistants and now they’re needing a lot more communication and critical thinking skills,” says Mary Jane Ryan, director of workforce development for Partners. “We want to help build their ability to advance in their careers, and without education that can’t happen in healthcare today.”

Darby Conley, 35, will be among the first class of students to enroll in the CFA’s Bachelor's program. She completed her Associate’s degree through CFA last May.  

“Even though I’ve been with a company for 15 years and proven myself, it’s embarrassing not to have your degree,” says Conley, who is a health care benefits administrator with Blue Cross Blue Shield. “I’ve always been shy to put myself up for promotional opportunities. Now I can say I’ve balanced work and kids and school and, yeah, I can do this. I’ve put my hat in the ring for a promotion and I’m getting some wonderful responses [at work].”

But things can get tricky if you’re trying to switch fields.

It’s one thing to enroll in a degree program that has been officially endorsed by your employer, like students at CFA. It’s another thing to take a gamble on a competency-based degree you aren’t sure will translate into your chosen career path. Because competency-based learning is still relatively new and focused on building specific skill sets, there’s not a lot of evidence out there that shows how employers perceive these types of degrees in potential job candidates or how easily transferable those skills are if you want to switch jobs.

“The beauty of what competency-based learning is trying to do is create more clarity on what someone actually knows when they come out of a program,” says Jason Tyszko, a senior policy director at the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Center for Education & Workforce. “But it’s hard to see how those skills could be transferred to other employers.”

Are competency-based degrees the answer to rising college costs?

If you’re a working adult looking for a flexible learning option that gives you skills applicable to your field and won’t break the bank, we think it’s safe to be excited about the possibility of competency-based programs. Considering the fact that for-profit colleges and universities, which traditionally target working adults, can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, competency-based models are certainly an attractive alternative.  

“Right now we’re in kind of an experimental phase with competency-based learning,” Tyszko says. “What remains to be seen is whether we will go from this experimental phase to fully embracing it.”

High school graduates may not be the prime candidates for cheap competency-based schools, but the notion that college freshman have to shackle themselves to $30,000 worth of debt just to get a degree is a myth in and of itself. 

When you look at the average net price of college tuition today — that is, the sticker price less scholarship and grant offerings — the outlook gets a lot less bleak.

Full-time in-state students paid just $3,120 a year for tuition and fees at four-year public institutions in 2013, according to the College Board, which comes to $12,480 for four years. True, this price doesn’t include room and board or books, but the $10,000 degrees championed in Florida and Texas didn’t either. Net tuition costs have been rising, mostly as a result of state budget cuts to public education, but they’re more affordable than news headlines give them credit for.

“We often think of higher education costs as what’s discussed in the media and political circles,” Hurley says. “But the reality is that very few people pay the full rate.”

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