The $10,000 Bachelor's Degree Arrives

Colleges’ spring terms are winding down, which means thousands of newly minted graduates of four-year colleges will soon be entering the workforce, encumbered by more than $29,000 in student loan debt, per average debtor. At the same time, there’s wide debate about how well college prepares students to compete for the kinds of jobs that would help them pay off their debts.

This disconnect at the top of the academic pyramid is being exploited by community colleges and online educational institutions, often to students’ advantage. What they lack in ivy and clock towers, these places make up for by understanding how to cater to busy working adults and their employers.

Today in Washington, the disruption of higher ed will take another step with the announcement of the first nationally available $10,000 bachelor’s degree. That’s $10,000 for the whole degree, not per year. It will be offered by College for America, an online operation of Southern New Hampshire University. The college keeps its costs down by offering classes online. Unlike other online schools, it operates through employers. Companies such as McDonald’s and Partners HealthCare, a hospital operator that’s the biggest private employer in Massachusetts, will offer College for America as an employee benefit and as a way to upgrade the quality of their workforces.

College for America doesn’t teach courses with credit hours. It teaches competencies, and it tests them using projects that resemble work that employees would be called on to do in their real lives. The first bachelor’s degrees to be offered are in health-care management and communications. College for America soft-launched last year with various associate’s degrees.

College-bound high schoolers may not find any of this particularly exciting, which is deliberate. Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, told me the program is designed for adult learners who don’t want the “bubble,” with quads and clubs, that traditional college-age students do. “They’re chomping down a meal in the parking lot, racing home to see their kids before they get to sleep.” They’re all about acquiring and demonstrating mastery of new skills, and getting paid for them.

College for America “recognizes the knowledge and skills that our folks already have, so they’re not sitting through an Introduction to Business course that they could probably teach,” says Lisa Schumacher, director of education strategies at McDonald’s. Mary Jane Ryan, workforce development director at Partners, told me the pilot project with College for America is going “fabulously well.”

The school’s online degree won’t solve the problem of college costs for everyone, but the trend toward teaching practical skills may well trickle up. Says LeBlanc: “There are a lot of these programs coming. There are already a fair number of competency-based programs in existence, thirtyish. There are 130 in development and hundreds being discussed. This is a wave. This is coming.”

There’s unquestionably a market for education that’s tightly focused on employers’ needs. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard inspiring stories from schools such as Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa, Seattle Colleges (formerly known as Seattle Community Colleges), and City Colleges of Chicago. I spoke to students like Janet Murumba, 33, a Kenyan immigrant and mother who received a certificate in industrial manufacturing. Her Seattle Colleges program blends academics with hands-on skills to the benefit of both. Her aspiration: to build airplane wings at Boeing. “In class,” she told me, “I could drill for the first time, and it was like, ‘Oh God, it’s happening, it’s real.’”