Much is being written about the preposterously high cost of college. The median inflation-adjusted household income fell by 7 percent between 2006 and 2011, while the average real tuition at public four-year colleges increased by over 18 percent. College tuition has increased at twice the rate of health care costs over the past 25 years.
Ballooning student debt, an impending college bubble, and a return on the bachelor's degree that is flat or falling -- all these things scream out for entrepreneurial solutions.
One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree -- the so-called 10K-B.A. -- which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin.
Most 10K-B.A. proposals rethink the costliest part of higher education -- traditional classroom teaching. This means a reliance on online and distance-learning alternatives. Predictably, this has stimulated antibodies to unconventional modes of learning.
As Darryl Tippens, provost of Pepperdine University, put it, "No PowerPoint presentation or elegant online lecture can make up for the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person." And what happens when you excise those frissons? In the words of the president of one university faculty association, "You're going to be awarding degrees that are worthless to people."
I disagree. I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made.
After high school, I spent an unedifying year in college. Next came what my parents affectionately called my "gap decade," during which I made my living as a musician. By my late 20s I was ready to return to school. But I was living in Spain, had a thin bank account, and no desire for a mountain of student loans.
Fortunately, there was a solution -- an institution called Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. This is a virtual college with no residence requirements. It banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.
I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.
And the whole degree cost me about $10,000 in today's dollars.
Back in the United States, I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.
Did I earn a worthless degree? Hardly. My undergraduate years may have been bereft of frissons, but I wound up as a tenured professor at Syracuse University. I now am president of a Washington research organization.
Not surprisingly, my college experience has occasionally been the target of ridicule. It is true that I am no Harvard Man. But my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.
The 10K-B.A. is exactly the kind of innovation we would expect in an industry that is showing every indication of a bubble that is about to burst, as Thomas K. Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows in a new report titled, "Anatomy of a Revolution? The Rise of the $10,000 Bachelor's Degree." When tuition skyrockets and returns on education stagnate, we can expect a flight to value, especially by people who have no choice but to make a cost-effective college investment.
In the end, however, the case for the 10K-B.A. is primarily moral, not financial. The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream.
Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for the New York Times.