Three years of college?

Senator (also former Secretary of Education and president of the University of Tennessee) Lamar Alexander wrote an article on education for Newsweek in last week’s issue. The title is “The Three Year Solution.”

Here is a brief summary of the article: The “Big Three” auto companies were once great American institutions. They ceased to be great because they failed to adapt to changing conditions. The American university system is currently a great American institution. It could cease to be great by failing to adapt to changing conditions. One way to do this is to provide options for well-prepared students to enter a three, rather than four, year college program.

I value ideas like these. Other ideas that Alexander alludes to: eliminating summer vacation, re-thinking tenure, and doubling the faculty to allow for year-round utilization of campuses. I have discussed tenure before—I think that it should be eliminated for community colleges and below (where research is not done), definitely kept for Research I universities, and unsure about liberal arts colleges like mine (“Well, that makes me feel better about me, worse about Giles. Kinda shaky about you.”). My justification for tenure is tied exclusively to research—I do not want researchers with unpopular ideas to be squelched. Certainly, great progress often occurs as the result of an unpopular idea. Thus, I disagree with Senator Alexander; while I believe that the tenure process may stifle creativity while a professor is working to obtain tenure, eliminating tenure would stifle creativity for a lifetime. After all, one is not likely to explore an odd idea if it would put one’s job in danger.

I am intrigued by the Senator’s ideas on eliminating summer vacation and holding college year round. There seems to be little reason to retain summer vacation, aside from the fact that we all like it (perhaps, though, this is reason enough). Senator Alexander also proposes that we double the size of the student body, double the faculty, and hold classes year round. This would allow students and faculty to retain their vacations (although it seems like they would not always be in the summer), but better utilize the campus. After all, the campus costs money to run even when students are not present.

One problem with summer classes is that I do not see a large, unfulfilled demand for college education. My institution(s) had fewer students enroll this year than desired. The only way to get more students would be to accept students who are less prepared (which may not be a bad thing).

My impression is that Senator Alexander is largely offering solutions to keep costs down for colleges. Although he did not mention this, eliminating tenure would almost certainly have the effect of lowering costs, since there is a large pool of cheap, recently graduated Ph.Ds who would like jobs (I, of course, would be opposed to this, since I believe that experience is important in education). While running classes year-round would not decrease costs, they very likely would increase revenue. These ideas make sense to me in the context of his article.

Most of the article, though, is about creating a system where well-prepared students could plan on graduating in three years. While this is an interesting idea (I graduated in three years from the University of Minnesota, and I am happy that I did), it eludes me how this relates to his article. He writes that this would save the student money—which it certainly would. However, this would come at the expense of the college—which seems counter to the point of the article.

I wonder if he thought that offering a three-year program would increase revenue, but I am skeptical here. The pool of well-prepared college students is small, and the pool of well-prepared college students who refuse to attend college because it takes exactly one year too long is even smaller. I cannot imagine that there are students who are not attending college for this reason.

I cannot figure out what problem the three-year solution is attempting to solve. I agree that it would be nice for some students (although I fear that too many students would attempt it—I am of the opinion that education is being far too compressed as it is), but I do not see the advantage it offers for colleges. Please let me know if you have ideas.

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4 Responses to “Three years of college?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    The author also stated that most faculty would likely not agree with compressing education, and many students don’t want to miss the experiences that require more time in college – social life, athletics, study abroad, etc. I disagree that lowering acceptance standards would be a good thing. There are plenty of places that do that, and I teach at them! 🙂
    I liked your Buffy reference.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Thanks for noticting the Buffy reference; it helps that we had both seen the episode the night before I posted this.
      I feel that many students (and adults) view college as a barrier to getting to the real point of everything—a job. If college were just a hoop to jump through, then I would agree that we should shorten college…to zero years. However, I feel like college offers much more than job training. As Erica’s student recently put it: “So it’s really more about life than about career.”
      Finally, I am not advocating that we lower standards for admissions here; I am merely trying to skirt the issue for now. Perhaps it will get its own post.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    3 years
    I think the three year thing would be a disaster here at Akron. We already have a breathtakingly low 4 year (and even 6 year) graduation rate, and I think the three year graduation rate would be so close to zero as to render it meaningless. There are of course a lot of factors that contribute to this, but a lack of summer classes offered is not one of them.
    I also hate the idea of eliminating tenure. I can’t get past my own personal investment in this to think about it objectively. But I know a large portion of the reason I wanted to work in academia in the first place was for tenure, so maybe if they “grandfathered” me in I could think about it objectively. But year-round teaching and no tenure, I might as well go work for the NSA and get to do fun research for a lot more money.
    (BTW, in case you haven’t guessed, this is JP. And on an unrelated note, from what I’ve gathered the major complaint of Wilson et al at the time was not that there was nothing in the proposed bill to forbid illegals from getting covered, because there was, but there was no enforcement mechanism (i.e. requiring an i.d.). This was voted down in committee along party lines before the kerfuffle, and then reversed not too long after the kerfuffle. Of course, this all came from various righty blogs, so it should be taken with a healthy grain of salt.)

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Re: 3 years
      I agree with you completely about the 3 year graduation plan. If anything, I think that we should extend college, although that is not really practical.
      I have a tough time getting beyond my personal investment in tenure, too. However, I have been trying to teach myself to take a more global view of the world. This is why I would consider getting rid of tenure at my institution…in theory. The reality is that I would not lead the charge, and I would probably push back if anyone tried to take it away from me.
      Of course, any change in tenure policies would almost have to grandfather in existing faculty. It seems like there might be a legal question if people tried to take-away tenure.
      Finally, the author was not suggesting that faculty teach year-round. Rather, he suggested hiring MORE faculty to cover the summer teaching. He seemed to think that it would be cost effective, since the colleges would generate revenue year-round.

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