Marcel Martinez-Alvarez, who's just finishing up his sophomore year of high school, already knows paying for college is going to be a challenge. As they've talked to their son about his plan to get a degree, Martinez-Alvarez's parents have stressed the need for him to seek scholarships to help foot the bill.
Without financial aid, Martinez-Alvarez could graduate from college with a mountain of debt, a daunting prospect facing many students.
But if the 15-year-old sticks with the college prep courses offered by his high school and enrolls in Texas A&M University-San Antonio in three years, he could get his degree in 2017 for just $10,000, an almost unimaginably cheap price tag for a college education.
In February 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged the state's colleges to create bachelor's degree programs that would cost students no more than $10,000 in tuition, fees, and books. Critics resoundingly denounced the suggestion as unrealistic. But two schools-the University of Texas-Permian Basin and Texas A&M University-San Antonio-already had plans for low-cost degrees in the works. Publicity from the governor's challenge put those ideas on the fast track to implementation.
This fall, students like Martinez-Alvarez can begin their quest for that coveted degree without incurring a burdensome debt. Although the degrees offered by the two schools, and the path to receive them, are slightly different, they both share the same low cost-$10,000. And they both offer bachelor's degree programs in studies identified as critical field areas for the state of Texas. The University of Texas-Permian Basin hopes to fill classrooms and labs in its newest science building, while Texas A&M University-San Antonio will enroll students produced by the local public high school-community college cooperative into its IT Cyber security program.
"The governor believes that every student who can't afford to go to college or gives up early due to the cost is a lost opportunity, not just for that individual, but for our state, as well," Perry spokeswoman Steffany Duke told World on Campus when asked about the new initiatives.
Both Martinez-Alvarez and Hannah Brooks, 16, will start preparing for one of the new degree plans this fall when they begin their junior year at Alamo Colleges-Memorial Early College High School in New Braunfels, Texas, a small city just north of San Antonio. The Early College High School, in the Comal Independent School District, is one of 250 similar schools around the country established through partnerships between local school districts and community colleges. The schools allow students to work toward their high school diploma and an Associate's Degree simultaneously.
"We've tried to coordinate all along," said Carolyn Green, Texas A&M University-San Antonio associate professor of information systems and director of the Center for Information Technology and Cyber Securities. "We've all been concerned [about rising tuition costs]. That's an ongoing conversation we've had."
Students can make a seamless transition from high school, to community college, to Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Green said. San Antonio has a large population of corporate, government, and military offices in need of cyber security experts. Students who complete their Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences with an emphasis in Information Technology will be in high demand, Green said.
Brooks, who has an older brother in college, knows her ability to get a marketable degree for substantially less than the going rate will be a big help to her family. Students who attend the University of Texas at Austin, one of state's largest public colleges, pay about $9,000 each year in tuition and fees. Although she's not sure she wants to major in cyber security, she know's it's a speciality that could get her a job in government or business. And it fits with her interests: "I've been interested in the science and mathematics of computers," she said.
Texas A&M University-San Antonio, which received its accreditation three years ago, is an upper level university only offering junior and senior courses. Because the school already planned to partner with area community colleges, Perry's challenge did not sound like an impossibility, college President Maria Hernandez Ferrier said.
"We can do it, but we need to do it with partners," she said. "We need to do it with K-12, with community colleges and then to us. And that is exactly how this degree has come about."
Beginning this fall, students entering their junior year in the Early College High School programs in San Antonio, Judson and Comal school districts will be on track to earn the $10,000 degree. By the time they graduate from high school, the students are half-way toward a college degree without paying tuition and fees said Dolly Adams, Alamo Colleges-Memorial ECHS principal. The Comal ISD partnership with St. Philips College covers the educational costs for the students. The community college covers tuition and fees while the district pays for books and transportation, saving students about $20,000, Adams added.
After high school, the students take an additional 27 hours at Alamo Community College then transition into the Texas A&M University-San Antonio Information Technology and Cyber Security degree program for the final 36 hours they need to graduate. The price tag will be about $9,700, not including books or housing. Students who take classes not included in the degree plan will have to pay extra for those credit hours. Students from other ECHS programs in Texas who have post-secondary credits can also transition into the program.
Although the school only offers the IT degree under the $10,000 degree plan right now, administrators are looking at using the system for other programs, Green said.
Almost 350 miles northwest of San Antonio, the University of Texas-Permian Basin sits isolated in the middle of the Texas plains. The Odessa campus is the only post-secondary four-year institution within a 130-150 mile radius, and administrators are trying to grow its traditional full-time student base.
Bill Fannin, the school's provost and vice president of Academic Affairs said the university has room to grow, and its $10,000 Texas Science Scholar Talent Search will fill empty labs and classrooms with students who meet the entry standards. The school will offer $10,000 degrees in math, chemistry, computer science, information technology, and geology to qualifying students.
"We're a relatively small university and we would be more than doubling or even tripling these programs," Fannin said of the anticipated influx of students taking advantage of the low-cost degree option.
The school can handle at least 25 percent growth, with students paying only $2,500 a year in tuition and fees. Because the school has an established faculty and infrastructure-including a new science building opened last fall-it will incur little cost as its student body grows. Enrollment in the new program will be limited to about 100 students per grade level.
Fannin admits that number will most likely be reduced as more general education students enroll, but he thinks the school has four to five years before it would have to readdress the admissions policy.
Unlike students in the Texas A&M University program, Texas Science Scholars are not required to have post-secondary credits but they must meet math and science standards and maintain a 3.0 GPA during their tenure at University of Texas-Permian Basin. They will be on track to complete the 120-hour bachelor degree in four years, with no deviation from the required curriculum of 30 hours a year.
Students who qualify as Texas Science Scholars will be required to live on campus their freshman year. Annual costs range from $3,900 for an efficiency unit to $7,900 for a three-bedroom family apartment, fees not included in the $10,000 price tag.
The Texas Science Scholars will not be eligible for scholarships and grants awarded by the university but will be eligible for those offered by the government and private endowments.
State officials hope both $10,000 degree programs will prompt other schools to find creative ways to lower their costs as well, said Steffany Duke, the governor's spokesperson.
"Gov. Perry is proud of the programs that have been created and continues to encourage all colleges and universities to establish more affordable degrees," she said.