By Richard Vedder
The hallmark of Bill Clinton's welfare reform of the mid-1990s, passed with strong Republican support, was a limit on the time a person could receive welfare payments. Within a few years, the welfare rolls had shrunk, poverty rates were falling, and federal spending on welfare (and associated matching state government spending) had declined. Nearly everyone agrees the welfare reform program was a big success -- a highlight of the otherwise not particularly distinguished Clinton presidency.
Why don't we consider federal assistance to college students a form of welfare, subject to time limits? Why not limit Pell Grants, federally subsidized student loans, tax credits, and other forms of aid to three years for bachelor's students? Why not have the federal government push schools to get students through college in three years, rather than four (or five, or six, or never)?
Manchester College in Indiana is now offering a three year option. Kids work a bit harder during the conventional school year. The National Survey of Student Engagement implies that most students at most schools work less than 40 hours a week attending class, studying, writing papers, etc. Party time rivals study time in magnitude. Make our college students behave like Americans, not Frenchmen --push them a bit harder. Have them attend summer school for a couple of years to achieve the same number of credits that conventional students receive.
For years, I taught in a great Honors Tutorial College program at Ohio University where students graduated in three years. Some of my three year students ended up in Ph.D. programs at schools like Harvard or Northwestern, or at law schools like Michigan. And they succeeded in life as well. (The current director of that program, very unwisely in my judgment, has abandoned the 3 year nature of the program --three years works at Oxford, apparently, but it is not enough at Ohio University). My own son, taking a lot of college classes while in high school, managed to get two degrees in three years -- and graduate Phi Beta Kappa.
In short, I see no reason why students cannot get out of college in three years --with a quality education. Doing so enormously saves on resources, reduces family college costs, raises labor force participation of well educated Americans, saves taxpayers money, etc. Why isn't it done?
I will tell you why. Most people oppose the idea. Where tried, it has one tepid approval --students would rather work less hard, linger a while longer at college, have more time at the student rec center, chasing members of the opposite sex, or drinking beer. College is fun --and they don't want to end the fun. Colleges want the kids too --more tuition revenues, often more state subsidy payments. But is it the job of society to provide "fun" for millions of persons from comparatively affluent families? Is it society's goal to maximize university revenues? I think not. Cutting back to three years of support on financial aid would force colleges into all sorts of innovative actions to get kids through college faster. And that is a good thing to do.