Why College Shouldn't Take Four Years: Lamar Alexander

Hartwick college, a small liberal-arts school in upstate New York, makes this offer to well-prepared students: earn your undergraduate degree in three years (six semesters) instead of four, and save about $43,000—the amount of one year's tuition and fees. A number of innovative colleges are making the same offer to students anxious about saving time and money. The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car. And that's both an opportunity and a warning for the best higher-education system in the world. (Article continued below...)

During the 1960s the United States made almost all of the world's best automobiles. Detroit's Big Three—Ford, Chrysler, General Motors—sold more than 80 percent of cars in the United States. Yet that domination had its own intrinsic risks.

In The Reckoning, his chronicle of the American auto industry's troubles, the late David Halberstam wrote about George Romney, the square-jawed, upstart president of American Motors who saw the Big Three as a "shared monopoly … musclebound and mindless in the domestic market—increasingly locked into practices that their best people knew were destructive but unable to break out of so profitable a syndrome." Romney warned, "There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success."

We know the rest of the story. The Big Three kept producing gas guzzlers while the Europeans and Japanese perfected smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Some of Detroit's best people even left to help. Ford vice president Marvin Runyon's team moved to Smyrna, Tenn., to build Nissan's start-from-scratch plant. Fifteen miles away, in Spring Hill, General Motors invested $5 billion in Saturn, hoping side-by-side competition would help the Americans beat the Japanese. But GM was still too musclebound. Meanwhile, Nissan's liberated managers and nonunion employees operated the most efficient auto plant in North America. Today, American taxpayers are bailing out GM and Chrysler, foreign competitors make most of the world's best cars, and the Big Three account for less than half the cars sold in the United States.

American higher education could learn from Romney's warning to the Big Three a half century ago. The United States has almost all of the world's best universities. A recent Chinese survey ranks 35 American universities among the top 50, eight among the top 10. Our research universities have been the key to developing the competitive advantages that help Americans produce 25 percent of all the world's wealth. In 2007, 623,805 of the world's brightest students were attracted to American universities. Not long ago, a few Senate colleagues and I had supper with former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was completing a year as scholar-in-residence at the Library of Congress. One senator asked Cardoso what memory he would take back to Brazil about his time in the United States. "The American university," he replied. "The greatness and the autonomy of the American university. There is nothing in the world quite like it."

Yet, as with the auto industry in the 1960s, there are signs of peril within American higher education. It is true that the problem with car companies was monopoly, whereas U.S. colleges compete in a vibrant marketplace. Students, often helped by federal scholarships and loans, may choose among 6,000 public, private, nonprofit, for-profit, or religious institutions of higher learning. In addition, almost all of the $32 billion the federal government provides for university research is awarded competitively.

But as I discovered myself during my four-year tenure as president of the University of Tennessee in the late 1980s, in some ways, many colleges and universities are stuck in the past. For instance, the idea of the fall-to-spring "school year" hasn't changed much since before the American Revolution, when we were a nation of farmers and students put their books away to work the soil during the summer. That long summer stretch no longer makes sense. Former George Washington University president Stephen J. Trachtenberg estimates that a typical college uses its facilities for academic purposes a little more than half the calendar year. "While college facilities sit idle, they continue to generate maintenance, energy, and debt-service expenses that contribute to the high cost of running a college," he has written.

Within academic departments, tenure, combined with age-discrimination laws, make faculty turnover—critical for a university to remain current in changing times—difficult. Instead of protecting speech and encouraging diversity and innovative thinking, the tenure system often stifles them: aspiring professors must win the approval of established colleagues for tenure, encouraging likemindedness and sometimes inhibiting the free flow of ideas.

Meanwhile, tuition has soared, leaving graduating students with unprecedented loan debt. Strong campus presidents to manage these problems are becoming harder to find, and to keep. In fact, students now stay on campus almost as long as their presidents. The average tenure of a college president at a public research university is seven years. The average amount of time students now take to complete an undergraduate degree has stretched to six years and seven months as students interrupted by work, inconvenienced by unavailable classes, or lured by one more football season find it hard to graduate.

Congress, acting with the best of intentions, has tried to help students with college costs through Pell Grants and other forms of tuition support. But some of their fixes have made the problem worse. The stack of congressional regulations governing federal student grants and loans now stands twice as tall as I do. One college president lamented to me that filling out these forms consumes 7 percent of every tuition dollar.

Because of the recession, Harvard is laying off workers and Stanford is selling a billion dollars of its endowment. Declining state support makes the pain in public universities even worse. From 2000 to 2006, total state higher-education funding rose only 17.6 percent while average tuition at public four-year institutions went up 63.4 percent. The main cause of declining state support was the runaway costs of Medicaid, which rose over the same period by 62.6 percent. And Congress is now considering a health-care reform bill that would shift even more Medicaid costs to the states. The recent federal stimulus dollars offer only temporary relief. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen described the situation in his March budget address: "When this money ends 21 months from now, our campuses will suddenly need to begin operating with about $180 million less in state funding than they had this year."

For all of these reasons, some forward-looking colleges like Hartwick are rethinking the old way of doing things and questioning decades-old assumptions about what a college degree means. For instance, why does it have to take four years to earn a diploma? This fall, 16 first-year students and four second-year students at Hartwick, located halfway between Binghamton and Albany, enrolled in the school's new three-year degree program. According to the college, the plan is designed for high-ability, highly motivated students who wish to save money or to move along more rapidly toward advanced degrees.

By eliminating that extra year, three-year degree students save 25 percent in costs. Instead of taking 30 credits a year, these students take 40. During January, Hartwick runs a four-week course during which students may earn three to four credits on or off campus, including a number of international sites. Summer courses are not required, but a student may enroll in them—and pay extra. Three-year students get first crack at course registration. There are no changes in the number of courses professors teach or in their pay.

In April, Lipscomb University in Nashville also announced a three-year option, along with a plan for veterans to attend tuition-free and make it easier and cheaper for community-college students to attend Lipscomb. Lipscomb requires its three-year-degree students to take eight semesters, which means summer school is required. Still, university president Randy Lowry estimates that a three-year-degree student saves about $11,000 in tuition and fees.

The three-year degree is starting to catch on, but it isn't a new idea. Geniuses have always breezed through. Judson College, a 350-student institution in Alabama, has offered students a three-year option for 40 years. Students attend "short terms" in May and June to earn the credits required for graduation. Bates College in Maine and Ball State University in Indiana are among other colleges offering three-year options. Later this month the Rhode Island Legislature is expected to approve a bill requiring all state institutions of higher education to create three-year bachelor programs.

Changes at the high-school level are also helping to make it easier for many students to earn their undergrad degrees in less time. One of five students arrives at college today with Advanced Placement credits amounting to a semester or more of college-level work. Many universities, including large schools like the University of Texas, make it easy for these AP students to graduate faster. According to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent statistics, about 5 percent of U.S. undergraduates finished with bachelor's degrees in three years.

For students who don't plan to stop with an undergraduate degree, the three-year plan may have an even greater appeal. Dr. John Sergent, head of Vanderbilt University Medical School's residency program, enrolled in Vanderbilt's undergraduate college in 1959. He entered medical school after only three years as did "four or five of my classmates. I was looking at a lot of years ahead of me, eight to 10 years of medical training after college before I had a real job," he says. "My first year of medical school counted as my senior year, which meant I had to take three to four labs a week to get all my sciences in. I basically skipped my senior year." Sergent still had time to be a student senator, serve as fraternity president, and meet his wife. Today, interviewing hundreds of applicants for medical residencies, he sees several who have graduated in less than four years, mainly because of Advanced Placement credits. "Most of them use the extra time to complete a research project or to think about what to do with their lives. It's not as clear-cut as when we were in college," he told me.

There are drawbacks to moving through school at such a brisk pace. For one, it deprives students of the luxury of time to roam intellectually. Compressing everything into three years also leaves less time for growing up, engaging in extracurricular activities, and studying abroad. On crowded campuses it could mean fewer opportunities to get into a prized professor's class. Iowa's Waldorf College has graduated several hundred students in its three-year-degree programs, but is now phasing out the option. Most Waldorf students wanted the full four-year experience—academically, socially, and athletically. And faculty members will be wary of any change that threatens the core curriculum in the name of moving students into the workforce.

"Most high governmental officials who speak of education policy seem to conceive of education in this light—as a way to ensure economic competitiveness and continued economic growth," Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard told The Washington Post. "I strongly disagree with this approach." Another risk: the new campus schedules might eventually produce less revenue for the institution and longer working hours for faculty members.

Adopting a three-year option will not come easily to most schools. Those that wish to tackle tradition and make American campuses more cost-conscious may find it easier to take Trachtenberg's advice: open campuses year-round. "You could run two complete colleges, with two complete faculties, in the facilities now used half the year for one," he says. "That's without cutting the length of students' vacations, increasing class sizes, or requiring faculty to teach more." Simply requiring one mandatory summer session for every student in four years—as Dartmouth College does—would improve his institution's bottom line by $10 million to $15 million dollars, he says.

Whether they experiment with three-year degrees, offer year-round classes, challenge the hidebound tenure system—or all of the above—universities are, like the automakers, slowly realizing that to stay competitive and relevant they must adapt to a rapidly changing world. Among the 13.2 million automobiles sold in the United States during 2008, just 315,761 were hybrid vehicles. Toyota alone sold three out of four, or 241,405, of these; the Big Three sold 34,042. The number of hybrids is relatively small, but Toyota's persistence and innovation in creating smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles has helped it to become the world's leading automobile manufacturer.

Just as a hybrid car is not for every driver, a three-year degree is not for every student. Expanding the three-year option or year-round schedules may be difficult, but it may be more palatable than asking Congress for additional bailout money, asking legislators for more state support, or asking students for even higher tuition payments. Campuses willing to adopt convenient schedules along with more-focused, less-expensive degrees may find that they have a competitive advantage in attracting bright, motivated students. As George Romney might have put it, these sorts of innovations can help American universities, long the example to the world, avoid the perils of success.