WPU President: $10,000 Degree Program May Not Work for All

Applications for New Jersey colleges are way up. Rutgers, The College of New Jersey, Kean University and Montclair State all project a record-smashing number of applications, partly because applying is easier. Moody’s Investors Service suggests students are simply applying to more schools. And just as high school seniors make their final college selections comes a bill that promises a college degree at any New Jersey institution of higher learning for $10,000. The bill doesn’t address how colleges and universities would cover their costs at a time when state aid is dwindling and the legislation carries no force of law requiring colleges to cut tuition rates. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams spoke with William Paterson University President Dr. Kathleen Waldron about how a $10,000 degree would actually affect students.

When asked how realistically a university can cover all its operational and academic costs if students are paying a fraction of what tuition is now, Waldron said, “I think that would be really very difficult to even contemplate.”

“It’s not that all university presidents haven’t thought about ways to hold down tuition, reduce the cost to educate students, perhaps provide more financial support. We are very, very realistic and understanding of the student’s financial predicament these days in keeping and trying to go to college and making it affordable,” Waldron said.

The $10,000 baccalaureate degree program has been modeled and tried in other states — New Hampshire, Arizona and Texas. While Waldron says it’s not something that she’s actually sketched out, she’s not sure whether or not it would be possible for the immediate future.

“These are experiments with very small parts of a student population and I’m not sure whether they will be successful or not,” she said. “I don’t even know if I would want to contemplate doing that because I think it would be very detrimental to students right now to try and do something suddenly over the long term. If there’s a way of restructuring the business model of higher education in the United States I think we should all be looking at making that our responsibility.”

Waldron says that most of the costs of tuition increases at public institutions over the last 10 or 20 years were the direct result from reduced state support around the United States for higher education despite good or bad economic times.

“When I went to college, and I went to a public school in the state of New York, the state paid about 80 percent of the cost of my education and I paid 20 percent.” Waldron adds, “Now, the numbers are most states are paying 30 percent in state appropriations or fringe benefits and the students have to pay the other 70 percent.”

So what can be done to make college more affordable? Waldron says, “We took a really big step in November of 2012.”

She’s referring to the $750 million bond referendum that passed in 2012 that provides the funds for college and universities to make capital improvements, such as building libraries, academic building and laboratories — something that hasn’t been done since 1988.

“New Jersey is one of only four states that was not contributing to building facilities at its college campuses. So the costs of building new labs, refurbishing an academic building, putting a sound system or technology into a classroom has all been borne by the students, and past students and alumni who attended William Paterson University and other universities and we had to raise tuition. When you do state funding for facilities, that allows universities to reduce the increases in tuition on an annual basis, and [William Paterson] has done so since 2012, 2011 even.”

The per year cost of undergraduate tuition for undergrads in state at William Paterson is over $12,000. After scholarships and financial aid, Waldron says the average student ends up paying about $4,000.

“It of course varies student by student. A lot of our students qualify for federal aid or state aid and some students of course get work study on campus so they have jobs while others get scholarships directly from the university,” she said. “But even with that it’s hard for a lot of students to afford education, to afford to attend William Paterson or anywhere in New Jersey. Students at my university graduate with about $27,000 in debt, which is sort of a national norm these days, and I think that’s a real burden for young people to graduate with. We’ve been working on increasing the type of financial support, particularly from scholarships. I’m so proud that this week we’re going to be announcing a new $1 million gift from a foundation that will go directly towards scholarships for students over the next four years.”

But some schools are experimenting with trying to give a $10,000 degree. Waldron says it’s much harder than just moving the degree online.

“There’s a lot of degrees today around the United States that are offered online, including excellent degrees from Thomas Edison, which is here in New Jersey. But those cost way more than $10,000 — much more. So it’s not just automatically assuming that an online degree is going to change the pricing structure of higher education,” she said.

But would a $10,000 degree affect the quality of education in the classroom or in a truncated period of time as compared to current degree programs?

“I’m not sure what the quality is going to be. You may be able to do it in some degrees, you might not be able to do it in other degrees. We want our students to graduate with a high level of competency for their post-graduate careers or graduate schools that they are going to entertain and they need a knowledge base,” she says. “They need a high level of knowledge. Our society is more demanding about the level of knowledge that our undergrads need when they graduate.”

Waldron says it has a lot to do with the faculty teaching the students, not the amount of time a student is enrolled in a certain degree program.

“I don’t think there’s any magic solution that says four years or five years or three years. It’s the level and quality of knowledge and who’s teaching those students. All of us could change the business structure and put anyone in the classroom, and we’ve seen some for-profit institutions do that around the country today, but faculty not only teach, they create knowledge and our faculty in New Jersey are some of the best in the United States and we want to keep them here in New Jersey,” she said.

While Waldron says it’s something that New Jersey could certainly experiment with, she isn’t sure about how a $10,000 degree would fare at William Paterson, although she says it’s something that will be discussed.

“I think that given the median household income in New Jersey, I don’t think public education is expensive. But it’s not always affordable because people haven’t saved for a college education for their children, or working adults that haven’t had a chance to save for the cost of education or they don’t avail themselves of all the scholarships and other opportunities of funding that are available. It is something that we need to be careful about. The days of a 5 to 6 percent tuition increase every year are over. I don’t think we should do that any more, and I don’t think people can afford that anymore.”

Related: Bill Aims to Reduce College Tuition Costs