Three Years And Out

IT'S COLLEGE-ADMISSION SEASON ACROSS America, that period in the lives of families when parents and children switch from worrying obsessively about where they will be accepted to worrying acutely about how they will ever pay the bills. With private colleges now regularly charging $25,000 a year (for eight months of room, board and classes sandwiched among vacations), the question is simply this: isn't there a cheaper-perhaps better-way to run this academic railroad? Over the past year several prominent educators, including the presidents of Stanford and Oberlin, have come to the same answer: it may be time to move toward a three-year college degree. "I believe we do our students a disservice by not making clear that four years in college is far less important than the content of the education one receives prior to graduation," says Stanford's Gerbard Caspar.

Caspar fueled the discussion last year. In a series of speeches, he called for a reexamination of undergraduate education. The report of his campus commission is due in October. Other schools are not waiting. Last month Middlebury announced that its international-studies major would become a three-year program next year. Oberlin, Upper Iowa University and Albertus Magnus College recently introduced three-year tracks. Brigham Young University is offering financial incentives for a speedy graduation. Three-year students at Oberlin will save the entire cost of a fourth year. Other schools may charge for a required summer semester or two.

Fred Starr, president of Oberlin, likes to cite polls that show students want these options. One survey reports that three quarters of high-school seniors would like to attend a college with a three-year bachelor's program. Michael Bastedo, 20, already does; he will graduate a year early from Oberlin in June. The youngest of seven children from a middle-class family in Middlebury, Conn., Bastedo doesn't want to take money from his parents for another year of tuition. If he could have afforded a fourth year, he says, he would have studied abroad and earned a double major. Now Bastedo plans to start job-hunting so that he can earn money instead of adding to his $14,000 in student loans.

For decades academically gifted students have earned college credits in high school. About 60,000 high-school seniors who bad loaded up on Advanced Placement (AP) courses started college last fall eligible for sophomore standing. Most students with AP credits use them to "place out" of freshmen courses but not to graduate early. Some educators predict that this will change. Between 1992 and 1993, the number of students taking AP courses increased 13 percent, from 566,036 to 640,000. "It is quite reasonable to assume that [these courses] should shorten students' time in college," says Stanford's Casper, "unless you take the somewhat romantic view that four years is dictated by natural law."

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It was more like an accident of history, borrowed from Cambridge University by Harvard College in 1655. A few years later Cambridge changed to three years. Indeed, British universities-and those elsewhere in Western Europe-still work on a three-year model. But most Americans argue that there are critical educational reasons why a student earning a baccalaureate today should study for at least four years. "There is a process of maturation that goes on in college that's very important because it isn't only emotional maturation, it's intellectual growth," says James Freedman, president of Dartmouth College. Freedman and Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University, both argue that there has been an explosive growth in knowledge during the last half century. "I would hate to see us spending less time trying to master that knowledge than we do today," says Freedman.

That explains why many students still use their AP head start to enrich their studies. Luz Herrera, a 21-year-old junior, entered Stanford with 40 college credits. But she is dead set on spending four years at "the farm." For one thing, she loves having the time to be in student government. She also wants to spend her senior year doing an honors thesis. "When you come as a fresh, you don't necessarily know what you want to do," she says. "With a three-year program, you really can't change your mind. You don't have the opportunity to explore."

That's an expensive opportunity. "If we could offer the benefits of a college education in three years, the cost would be reduced considerably," says Casper. "If we could couple this with a streamlining of our course offerings and a greater focus on a coherent curriculum, universities could also reduce their costs." In all likelihood, such initiatives won't be the only ones aimed at reining in college costs. At least the discussion is turning serious.

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