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.