Saturday, November 11, 2006

Three Year B.A. Degrees

By Richard Vedder

One nice thing about doing a blog is you occasionally learn something from some of your audience. Wick Sloane, who has otherwise been a good CCAP friend and has written a provocative "Perspective" column on our web site (with CCAP Whiz Kid Jonathan Leirer), brings to my attention a great column that then Oberlin College President Fred Starr wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer more than 15 years ago, on October 9, 1991.

President Starr starts out be stating that "higher education, private and public, is too expensive." Since he wrote that, college costs have soared even further, rising faster than the inflation rate in every one of the subsequent 15 years. He then goes on to raise an issue that we raised the other day (again, partly stimulated by Wick): why should it take four years to get certified as being reasonably well educated, a "college graduate"? Why not 3 years? 4.567 years?

Economists usually look at the marginal benefits of something relative to the relative costs (for private businesses, the marginal benefits coincide, more or less, with marginal revenues from the sale of goods and services). I suspect that in some ultimate social sense, the marginal benefits of the first and second year of college very often exceed the marginal costs, and that may even hold for the third year. But does it hold for the fourth, fifth, or, increasingly sixth year? My guess is the answer very often is no. Several other civilized nations have reached that conclusion, and have gone to the three year baccalaureate degree. So we raise again what a well known academic leader raised 15 years ago: why not reduce the costs of college by at least 25 percent by lowering the course work required for a bachelor's degree? Why not at least start to do serious academic research into the question?

Not only is the per year cost of attending college soaring, but the long run trend is for students to linger around longer, often because a change in major, a transfer of institution, etc., forces the student to take more courses to meet graduation requirements. Thomas Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary at the age of 16 and studied there for but two years -- until the age of 18(he then went on to read law for several more years). Yet his college education put him good enough stead to, for example, pen the Declaration of Independence. While Jefferson was no doubt an extraordinary man, his attending and leaving college at an early age was common. Today, undergraduates seldom finish before 22, and PhD's seldom receive their degree before the age of 27 or 28 (Yours truly earned his at the age of 24, something I suspect in nearly impossible to do today). Colleges have been able to get away with keeping productive resources under their control for longer and longer periods (collecting tuition all the while), despite no demonstrated evidence that this has sizable positive learning effects.


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