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Higher Ed Shake Up
A Three-Year BA?

At a time when America’s overpriced higher education system isn’t working for millions of students, and when elites seem to have remarkably few ideas for shaking the academy out of its current malaise (beyond the self-defeating proposals to further expand federal subsidies), new outside-the-box policy thinking is always welcome. Over at the Progressive Policy Institute, Paul Weinstein kicks around an intriguing idea for bringing down costs: What if colleges shaved a year of the BA, and made it possible for students to graduate in three years?

Three-year colleges are the norm in many European countries, and a few enterprising universities here have begun to follow suit. This proposal would require any U.S. college or university with students who receive any type of federal student aid to offer the option of earning a bachelor’s degree in three years, and to hold annual increases in the price of tuition and fees to just over inflation.

By making a three-year bachelor’s degree the norm the cost of attending college would drop dramatically. Students currently attending four-year public schools (in-state) would see savings on average of $8,893 while those at private schools would experience a $30,094 reduction.

Defenders of the higher education status quo would surely argue that while such a reform might cut down costs, it would cut down quality as well. And if colleges shortened their degree programs by one year without implementing any complementary reforms, then that might well be the case. But the fact is that today’s college students study far less than their predecessors did, and that, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, degree programs are increasingly saturated with superfluous and politicized courses that don’t do much to advance student learning in the first place.

As the European experience shows, it is certainly possible to fit a rigorous liberal arts education program into a three year course of study. Enterprising colleges looking for ways to ameliorate inequality and lower student costs would do well to give it a try.

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  • seattleoutcast

    This would make a lot of sense if and only if students were prepared for college at the high school level. Since colleges are required to teach so many remedial courses, I think this would be impractical.

    • Andrew Allison

      Perish the thought that colleges, while feeding voraciously at the public teat, should be required of only admit students who are educationally qualified. What’s needed are college entrance exams — perhaps, when the parents of so-called high school “graduates” start to learn how woefully uneducated their offspring are they may be galvanized into demanding that the high schools actually educate.

      • Greg Olsen

        One thing that could happen though is an increase in truancy and cramming for exams rather than going to school.

        • Andrew Allison

          Maybe, but if the result is that the kids get an education, so what? In large parts of the educated world, perhaps because it is, cramming for exams is de rigueur. The cost, not just to the student but to the State, of post-secondary education demands that those not qualified be weeded out.

      • seattleoutcast

        I think the public schools learned years ago that they can pass off their incompetence all the way to the college level for your very reason–they are working in tandem with colleges to keep the monies flowing in.

      • Ofer Imanuel

        Check out the term matriculation exams. Never understood why the U.S does not have them. What is the meaning of finishing high school, when there is no way to compare between highschools?

        • Andrew Allison

          I don’t need to check out matriculation exams — I grew up in England at a time when, based on a nationwide standardized set of examinations, 14% of secondary school graduates went to Uni. The problem is not that there’s no way to check between high-schools but that the vast majority of them are graduating functional illiterates. Making passing a standardized college entrance examination a prerequisite for obtaining a student loan would both starve the academic monstrosity and encourage real, as opposed pretend, secondary education.

          • Ofer Imanuel

            How will these college exams differ from matriculation exams? Also, I think that for non-college bound people, having a proof that they actually learned something in high school might be useful.

          • Andrew Allison

            They’re the same thing or, rather, should be.

  • Andrew Allison

    TAI overlooks the fact that only about half of the 50% of freshmen who actually graduate do so in even four years. The reason, obviously is that at least half the students shouldn’t even be there. Post-secondary education is a shambles.

  • Fat_Man

    Only 3 years? How would they have the time to take the courses on social justice, diversity, and gender identity that they need to be educated people in the modern world?

  • Fat_Man

    If this means attending classes before 10:00 a.m. or on Fridays, it will never fly.

  • Greg Olsen

    I see two problems with the 3 year BA proposal: (1) many kids arrive in college totally unprepared for the level of work and remedial instruction would take too eat into the time that should be spent on the major subject (2) the degrees would need to be shorn of their breadth requirements that will harm the mission of the university to educate the citizenry.

    The first problem could be addressed with entrance exams and students who lack basic skills will have to be diverted to the junior college system for remedial instruction. The second problem may require state governments intervening to make sure that a core curriculum is defined for state universities to make sure that it isn’t all victims’ studies courses.

    • Andrew Allison

      A three-year degree would directly address the fact that half the kids who arrive should never have been admitted by not providing remedial instruction, i.e., if you can’t demonstrate college-level skill, you don’t go to college. Your second argument is vitiated by the fact that 3-year baccalaureate degrees are the norm in the rest of the world.

    • Boritz

      Instead of taxpayers shouldering the expense of junior college remediation how about a German style Gymnasium system where at the high school level you are seriously college bound or you are seriously not.

    • RedWell

      A third problem is that national/federal accrediting agencies would have to change their standards.
      It’s actually an old idea, and, in fact, many students now can get credits in high school and/or test out of language requirements. The challenge is changing the whole ecosystem, including employer expectations of a traditional four-year degree.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The best deal I know of is dual-credit high school so that a very motivated student in opportune circumstances can essentially have an Associate’s (or equivalent) at HS graduation and conceivably a four-year BA in two more years. When this is done right, what is “skipped” is the last two years of high school—–and A LOT of “lost” money otherwise paid to college and forgone by being two years later arriving to a job.

  • Maddog

    How to get a top 10 Economics degree for less than $10,000

    I published this over at my blog This is the direct link:

    It is possible today to complete a university degree in less than three years for about $10,000, not per year, but for the entire degree. The University of London, London School of Economics and Political Science offers such degree.

    Distance learning and flexible study | University of London International Programmes

    Here is the link to course selection:

    Course search results | University of London International Programmes

    Note, that while all of the colleges at the University of London are quite good, the London School of Economics and Political Science is excellent, with its degrees (including accounting, banking, business, economics, and finance among others) commonly ranked approximately 4th in the world, making it a truly world class degree. That is 10th along with Harvard, Stanford, University of Chicago . . .

    QS World University Rankings by Subject 2015 – Economics & Econometrics

    Costs are low as well:

    £84 Application fee (non-refundable)

    £89/£45 Application fee for accreditation of prior learning (per course/half course).

    £760 Registration fee 1.

    £380 Continuing registration fee 1.

    Examination fees:

    £224 Examination fee per course.

    £112 Examination fee per half course

    The course of study is 6 semesters of work commonly taken over three years, resulting in a degree. Exams occurs only in May/June each year, and may be re-sit (retaken).

    This means the cost of study, without books, and supplies is about $3,000 per year, for a total tuition and testing cost of about $9,000. Testing is available in many places in the US, commonly in or close to large cities, and often performed at universities. Assuming books are less than $3,000 in total the total cost is about the cost of one year of instate college tuition here in the US, which seems to run about $9,400 without books, supplies, lodging, food, etcetera.

    The courses require 2.5 years of study in major, and one semester of study (4 half classes, or 2 full year classes in related areas). This usually means that an economics major might take related courses in business, accounting, finance, or the like.

    Notice the lack of requirements for Social Justice Religion classes, Correct Communism Thought classes, or another worthless time waster classes created by the imbeciles who run US colleges, and universities today.

    I no longer advise potential matriculants to university to attend a US university in person, but instead for them to seek education elsewhere, for less cost, better quality, and none of the US gender lunacy.

    Regardless of where you attend, never allow your student debt to rise higher than one-half of your realistic first years wage.

    Mark Sherman

  • Proud Skeptic

    Not really addressing the problem, is it? Seems to me like accepting the remaining scraps of useful education as a “Bachelors” after cutting out the garbage isn’t fixing the problem. Cut out the garbage and replace it with substance. Separately, do away with the bloated administration and get colleges to run themselves like they did forty years ago.

  • Anthony

    “…this is what happens when you have a poor job market for new graduates, a social safety net in tatters, crumbling financial support for public higher education (an increasingly anti-intellectual climate), an arms race in corporate fundraising by elite private schools, and a general takeover of the intellectual culture by corporate CEOs….”

    • Andrew Allison

      Setting aside the fact that financial support for education has never been higher and the results have never been lower, is it conceivable that the 80/20 rule applies, i.e., that only 20% of jobs actually require a baccalaureate education (and maybe 4% a post-graduate degree)?

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