With a YouTube comment and a governor's challenge, the idea has grown into a kind of Rorschach test for how Americans view higher education.
It's one of those YouTube clips that probably would have evaporated if it had featured anyone other than Bill Gates.
In August 2010, Mr. Gates, founder of Microsoft, speaking informally at a technology conference, said technological innovations should be able to lower the cost of college to $2,000 a year.
Mr. Gates's comments reportedly caught the attention of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican of Texas, who came up with his own back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much college should cost: Multiplying $2,000 times four and adding $2,000 for the cost of books or other learning materials, the governor decided that a bachelor's degree should cost $10,000.
To those who see it as a good idea, the $10,000 degree amounts to an indictment of higher education: Traditional colleges are elitist institutions that cater to the affluent and produce graduates with little practical work-force knowledge.
Governors including Tom Corbett, of Pennsylvania; Rick Scott, of Florida; and Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, have endorsed policies to encourage more job-training skills while questioning the value of the humanities and social sciences in academe.
The public's views about the value and direction of higher education are more ambivalent. Nearly 70 percent of those who responded to the annual Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll released in February think a college degree is essential for getting a good job, but nearly three-quarters said higher education was not affordable to "everyone who needs it."
Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-leaning group, says the $10,000 degree is in part a response to "the growing contempt that students and parents have for higher education."
The college degree is now seen by many solely as a way to earn the commonly cited million-dollar salary differential between college graduates and those without a degree. Those extra earnings have been touted by higher education for at least a decade as colleges tried to preserve state appropriations.
But in doing so, higher education has been promoting its economic value at the expense of the liberal arts and humanities, says Mr. Lindsay, a former political-science instructor. If colleges made clearer the value of education itself, "the dignity of that pursuit would have impressed itself on lawmakers and the public," he says. "For me, the tragedy of higher education is not that it was forced out of this role, but that it walked away."