ST. PETERSBURG — Critics spared no time in blasting Gov. Rick Scott's challenge as a gimmick, just another way to cheapen the value of a college education.
But from Pensacola to the Florida Keys, state college leaders were already sitting down in conference rooms, figuring out how to make his mythical $10,000 bachelor's degree a reality.
"It's like a unicorn, right?" said Amy Hyman Gregory, an official at Broward College, one of the first schools to latch on to the governor's big idea in 2012.
Whatever came of it?
More than four years later, about 16,300 students are enrolled in state college bachelor's programs costing $10,000 or less, according to the Florida College System. But the number who actually graduate for that price appears to be far lower, and pinning down an exact count is tricky.
Two dozen state colleges offer "workforce baccalaureate degree programs" in at least one area of study, each with their own ways of ensuring some students pay $10,000 or less. There are no guarantees when it comes to cost, however. What students pay comes down to a cobbled-together mix of requirements, fee waivers, scholarships and other variables.
At St. Petersburg College, for example, 450 students are enrolled in a technology development and management program, but only a handful will graduate for under $10,000 because of limited scholarship funds.
And at Broward College, stringent requirements for $10,000 degree scholars keep the pool small. Of 1,600 students pursuing a bachelor's degree, just nine are on the $10,000 track.
When Scott posed his challenge, the hurdles were considerable. He wasn't providing extra funding to state colleges, where most four-year degrees run about $13,000, well below public universities at $24,000.
The average state college student is slightly older, balancing part-time classes with work or family — not a perfect fit for the traditional full-time college model. The vast majority seek two-year degrees or certificates that will lead them to a university or a job. Less than 5 percent are enrolled in bachelor's programs.
That meant state colleges had to ask themselves who these $10,000 degrees would serve. At Broward, officials decided to motivate students to follow strict requirements, rewarding them with a free final year of college.
To qualify, students have to remain full-time, completing at least 30 credits per year, with a minimum 3.0 grade point average. After completing their associate's degree and beginning a bachelor's program, they can apply to the $10,000 degree program. If accepted, the college picks up their fourth year of tuition and fees, a deal that saves the student $4,600.
"It isn't easy, but these are students who go above and beyond," said Hyman Gregory, the Broward College official, who is district director of academic services for the school.
At first, she had to hunt eligible students down.
"They were like, 'What? I meet this requirement? I can get this funding?' " she said. "They didn't think it was real."
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Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the first to issue the $10,000 call to arms in 2011. Scott followed, asking colleges to "find innovative ways" to lower the price tag.
He had worked his way through college, first as a Navy radar technician earning credits for an associate's degree, then working full time at a doughnut shop while getting his bachelor's. He has said that with today's tuition costs, his story would not have been possible.
"Governor Scott believes higher education should be focused on delivering accessible, high-quality education that leads to a good paying job," Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone wrote in an email.
Within months of the governor's challenge, every state college that offers a four-year degree signed on. The Florida Senate passed a bill letting them waive certain tuition and fees to meet the $10,000 target.
The state Democratic Party accused Scott's "half-baked scheme" of transforming state colleges into "the Walmart of education," and the state Board of Education vice chair said it would undermine degree quality. The president of Eckerd College blasted Scott in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times.
"There's really only one more step to your plan to rein in college costs," Donald R. Eastman III wrote. "Have the chancellor of the Florida College System simply email a diploma to whoever wants one."
John Thrasher, then a state representative and now president of Florida State University, responded in a Times guest column. While the governor's idea might look like a gimmick, he wrote, "huddled around a kitchen table, I believe a $10,000 degree looks more like a shot at the American dream."
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At first, St. Petersburg College tried to recruit hardworking high school students, ideally with pre-earned credits and the motivation to power through in four years. But the college struggled to garner participation in a technology program that often attracted older students returning to build new skills.
After a few years, a breakthrough came. The school joined with Clearwater-based Tech Data Corp. to offer five scholarships worth $1,000 per semester, which students can win repeatedly to bring their total cost under $10,000.
"State colleges had issues in trying to make this $10,000 degree work, and I don't think it's because you can't find students who don't want to get an affordable degree," said Sharon Setterlind, dean of SPC's College of Computer & IT. "We struggled with this for a couple of years, and now we have something in place that's beneficial for everybody."
James Farley is a 49-year-old SPC student with a Wall Street career behind him, hoping to bolster his data skills. He won one of the $1,000 scholarships, which will help him take a summer class in advanced Web design. Still, he's not sure he'll graduate for $10,000.
Despite expectations that colleges would implement new teaching methods or technologies to create bargain degrees, many have relied on waivers and other workarounds while maintaining the same programs.
At some schools, like Polk State College and Pasco-Hernando State College, students with Pell Grants and Bright Futures scholarships were already graduating for as little as $5,000 before Scott's challenge.
In 2015, Pasco-Hernando designed a degree in supervision and management for the $10,000 challenge. At least seven students enrolled now meet the strict criteria to earn a degree for $10,000 or less, including a minimum 3.75 GPA. The college is looking at boosting financial assistance so even more students can graduate for less.
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From the start, critics wondered how colleges could slash prices while maintaining quality in a state that already has some of the cheapest tuition in the nation.
But quality was never a discussion at Broward College, Hyman Gregory said. The only difference in the $10,000 program is extra scholarship money.
To the chancellor of the Florida College System, the numbers say it all. On average, graduates of these bachelor's programs earn about $52,000 and have a placement rate higher than 80 percent. The programs are designed with input from industry leaders, and students emerge ready for high-demand fields.
"We're transforming lives," said Madeline Pumariega. "We're giving students, really, an opportunity to be able to have a pathway to prosperity."
At Broward College, the first wave of $10,000 degree scholars is coming up on graduation.
Katherine Golebiewski, 22, sped through her associate's degree in exceptional student education without knowing her GPA qualified her for the low-cost option. An email told her to apply.
Her work as a tutor and babysitter didn't cover her costs, so she signed up, cramming in summer classes and tracking every assignment on a calendar.
The money she's saving has helped pay for her wedding and state teaching tests. In December, she'll graduate with no debt.
"I made it," she said. "And I'm very proud of that."
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (727) 893-8321.