By Richard Vedder
In one of the few relatively memorable testimonies before the Spellings Commission, Charlie Reed, who runs the California State University system, opined at a hearing somewhere (I think maybe Boston) that the senior year in high school was a wasted experience. The question is: can the same thing be said about college?
All of this came back to mind in the past week. First, the always innovative Wick Sloane suggested to me that the way we package our higher education offerings is highly dubious in terms of maximizing either learning outcomes or efficiency. Why should all "courses" be roughly the same length? Why must learning occur in "3 credit" or "4 credit" courses -- why not more variability? Who says everyone needs to graduate in four years? Why not have some students race through in two years, and others in six? To some extent that happens now, but are we optimizing the time spent by students pursuing higher education? Wick is right, I think, and that got me thinking: should we repackage the way we dispense learning?
Then, reading Inside Higher Ed yesterday, I was reminded that the Europeans are going to the 3 year bachelor's degree, like the Australians. At my university, we have a 3 year bachelor's program for a small number of bright honors students, and I always felt they learned more in 3 years than most kids in four or five. Universities gain revenues, power, etc., by forcing students to linger around, but are the marginal benefits of the fourth year of instruction greater than the marginal costs? Do diminishing returns set in, leading us to keep some students around too long? Might we start evaluating the learning that occurs in the first, second, third, and, yes, fourth years of college? Do costs rise in the fourth year as students move to smaller classes taught by more senior professors, while at the same time the students learn material that is less part of the core needed either to be an educated citizen or necessary to fulfill vocational needs? Perhaps the length of the college program should vary by discipline, but something tells me the relatively rigid four year bachelor’s degree program for most programs and most students is not the optimal way of packaging educational services.