Only slowly does change come to American higher education. It's as if we remain frozen in time. We teach pretty much as we were taught. We lecture. Most of our classes meet three times a week for an hour. We give midterms and finals and occasionally assign term papers before sending our students on to their next semester. It's more than just tradition; in our teaching we have made sticking with the tried and true a practical obsession.
In the meantime, nearly everything and everyone else around us—technology, medicine, politics—has changed. Not surprising, then, there is across higher education a palpable sense that at last we too will have to rethink what we are about. There's plenty of reason to do so. Students and parents are increasingly alarmed by the high cost of attending college. (Though in fact these same students and their parents consistently choose the higher-priced school over the lower-priced public and private institutions.) No one seems to know quite what is being learned or why. And then there is the growing conviction that colleges and universities have become just another set of businesses principally focused on enhancing their reputations, rankings, and endowments. But these are old laments that have never resulted in much of anything—a lesson I learned firsthand while serving on former secretary of education Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
No, the change I have in mind is of a different order. We need a dislodging event that compels us to think differently about what we do. I believe we should make three years the standard length of time for attaining an undergraduate degree. It would have to be a true three-year degree: it would require 90 (as opposed to the current 120) credits for graduation and leave summer vacations just as they are now. This would immediately address complaints about high tuition, reducing by 25 percent the price of an undergraduate education. The longer-term and more important benefit would be a revitalizing of college curricula and faculty teaching.
Part of the educational appeal of a three-year degree is that it can help realign what happens in high schools and colleges. Today, too many of our best high-school students find their senior year boring and a waste of time. For less-well-prepared students, high school is too often a way station of missed assignments and forgotten opportunities. That lost year carries a high price: students in the 11th and 12th grades who cannot read at grade level and have not mastered elementary algebra and geometry are much less likely to graduate from college—unless, that is, they receive some real help.
At the same time, the baccalaureate degree isn't the finishing touch it once was: more college freshmen report that they intend to pursue a graduate degree, if not immediately following graduation, soon thereafter. Today, professional master's degrees in business administration, health care, and information technology have become industry standards. Since 1987 the number of master's degrees annually awarded by American colleges and universities has more than doubled.
All of this makes a three-year baccalaureate degree worth thinking about. In the future I have imagined, most high-school students will be assigned to one of two college-bound programs—an accelerated one with truly challenging courses for the well-prepared student and a more basic one with courses that emphasize reading, writing, and quantitative skills for those who need to catch up. As the college-bound programs succeed in preparing more students in reading, writing, geometry, and algebra, more and more of these students will succeed in earning a two-year associate's or three-year baccalaureate degree. And the number of students needing continued remediation in college could be substantially reduced, perhaps even cut in half.
Once in college, these students will encounter a course of study substantially different than the curriculum they would encounter today—in fact a curriculum much more like the one their grandparents would have encountered. Rather than choosing among a smorgasbord of courses and majors, students earning a three-year baccalaureate degree would sign up for a program of study in which much of the course work is sequenced, as well as prescribed. Students would find themselves part of a cohort, a group of students who take most if not all of their courses together, learning as much from each other and their collaborative projects as they learn from the formal lectures and lab sessions they attend.
Technology would play a much more central role in the curriculum. Skill courses, like calculus and foreign languages, are often taught as self-paced learning exercises with high-speed computers delivering instruction, assigning problems and exercises, and then checking the students' homework. When ready, students take their final exams and receive credit for the course, all without attending a single lecture. Students who need help in these subjects would sign up for tutorials and other forms of both face-to-face and electronically provided coaching. Even when the instruction is not being delivered electronically, examinations rather than seat time would be used to award credit. English composition, and even advanced writing already work in this way; introductory sciences are similarly organized, particularly for students who enter college having taken accelerated courses in these subjects. What will likely evolve is a pattern of "just in time" instruction as students work closely with individual faculty when they are most ready to benefit from the experience. The result is a much more efficient allocation of both student effort and faculty time.
The idea of a three-year degree is getting considerable play these days. Not one but two former governors turned college presidents—former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who served as president of the University of Tennessee and is now the state's senior senator, and Richard Celeste, former governor of Ohio and currently the president of Colorado College—told assembled college and university presidents last February that it was time to consder making the three-year degree the American standard. Alexander, who also writes in this week's NEWSWEEK, minced no words. Reminding his audience of the current travails of the American automobile industry, he called a three-year degree the "higher-ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car," compared to the traditional "gas-guzzling four-year course."
Predictably, opponents have raised a host of objections. Most American students, they argue, are not ready for the rigors of a three-year course of study. It would give short shrift to the liberal arts. The loss of a quarter of their income would force most of those liberal-arts colleges that could not increase their enrollments by 25 percent to close. At the same time, compelling the nation's community colleges to focus almost exclusively on remediation would leave them shorn of their hard-won respectability.
But I believe the benefits outweigh those drawbacks. Well over a half of American high-school seniors would be more than ready for the rigors of a three-year college education if they benefited from an academically beefed-up senior year in which much of the time was spent doing the reading and writing that characterize the best of freshman general-education courses. And in high school these courses would be taught by experienced high-school faculty rather than by a teaching assistant or a member of a college's adjunct faculty.
More attention—and indeed more money—would have to be devoted to redesigned programs offering purposeful remediation. Programs designed to make high-school seniors college-ready would begin in the 10th grade rather than the freshman year of college. Students still not ready for a three-year-college curriculum after high-school graduation would continue their remediation in a community college without reducing their subsequent eligibility for federal student aid (as is now the case). Those imperiled smaller liberal-arts colleges would have to develop master's programs to preserve their enrollments. Community colleges would continue to offer students a low-cost, low-risk portal in which to start their college educations. As in the past, they would be in the remediation business, though in the future they would join with high schools and baccalaureate institutions in three-way partnerships focused on increasing college graduation rates.
It is likely, however, that students would have to be surer of what they wanted from college—the course of study in which they wished to enroll, the kind of professional training they might want to pursue after graduation, and the size, location, and standing of the institution they wanted to attend. Students who are unhappy with their choices could choose to start again, enrolling somewhere else or studying something different. And they would still graduate within the same four to six years that, on average, it now takes many undergraduates to earn their baccalaureate degree.
The one objection that almost no one within higher education wants to raise is that adopting a three-year degree will reduce the money available to colleges and universities and thus reduce the size of the American professoriate—and that would likely be the case. Most of the cost savings of the three-year degree will come from savings in time and personnel. Some of those cuts may be offset by new professional master's programs—but certainly not all.
The final objection is simply, "It will never happen, so why waste time speculating about what a three-year degree would do either to or for American higher education?" The money bet, given higher education's long history of either minimal or no change, is that higher education's future will look pretty much like its present and past.
Still, here is a scenario that might work. The president of the United States and his secretary of education could invite the heads of the public systems of higher education in New York, California, Texas, and Ohio to a special two-day retreat to discuss how their institutions might make the three-year baccalaureate their standard undergraduate degree. Joining the session would be the governors of each of these states, the heads of the relevant accrediting agencies, and, for leavening, former governors Alexander and Celeste. This mini-summit's outcome would be an agreement to appoint joint working parties of experts, faculty leaders, and college and secondary-school administrators to tackle the tough issues associated with adopting the three-year degree. The working parties would be expected to present their three-year curricula to a follow-up summit a year later.
Given that much national attention and political heft, the buzz would quickly spread, along with a chorus of alarms sounded by those who would defend the status quo. But change would be on the table and the process of transformation would have begun.
That's something that didn't happen with the Spellings commission despite all of our best efforts. Changing higher education means changing what faculty members do, when and where we do it, and the time it takes both faculty and students to complete their assigned tasks. That kind of change will only come about if change comes to everyone simultaneously. And it doesn't help to vilify higher ed in the process, either. Having four state public systems make the three-year baccalaureate the standard would likely start a cascade of adoptions beginning with the private colleges and universities in those states and quickly spreading to neighboring states and competing institutions. An imaginary scenario to be sure, but one that is not farfetched. It could happen. The conversation could begin.