By Richard Vedder
I know of two related ways America could reduce the costs of educating postsecondary students very significantly that do not involve any major changes in the ways colleges do business.
First, increase the proportion of undergraduate students enrolled in community colleges or in on-line programs. Cost per pupil through these modes tend to be dramatically lower than at conventional four year schools with all their aspirations and pretensions of research leadership, with their high priced professors who teach modest amounts of undergraduates, their vast country club-like amenities, etc.
The case for increased emphasis on two year schools is compelling on other grounds as well. A huge portion of those entering four year schools do not make it through --at least within six years. If most students started at two year schools and got to move on to the major leagues (four year institutions) ONLY if they showed good academic potential in their two years of community college training, then perhaps we would have fewer students who ultimately fail to succeed while taking up high priced seats in the costly schools.
The other idea is to compress the time frame for the college experience. The Europeans are doing it with the three year bachelor's degree. Americans bemoan the loss of quality associated with a three year degree, but I have not seen any evidence documenting that point. At the margin, is the fourth year of study important? From personal experience, in some cases it is --this is when students get needed vocational training (e.g., in engineering or accounting) or start to use their book learning in real world situations that prepares them for the World of Work. But for many students, it is a vast wasteland --working 30 hours of week to earn a piece of paper rather than 40-50 hours a week doing productive things in the real economy.
Ohio Governor Ted Strickland in his State of the State address argued for a "Senior to Sophomore" program where high school students do the equivalent of their freshman college year while in high school --paid for by the state. The details are vague, and in some respects that state already does it, letting bright high school students take college classes free while in high school. But an expansion of that concept may well be warranted, although the devil is in the details. The AP programs that are so popular are another way kids can overcome the artificial and arbitrary barrier that says college must start at age 18.
To be sure, there are quality issues. My university is now offering liberalized transfer of two years credit from one of the state's leading two year schools --but faculty are saying "they teach rinky-dink courses in a non-rigorous manner, so all we are doing is cheapening the quality of our degree." Those concerns probably have validity. On the other hand, we have already been watering standards down within the collegiate world for decades. And, what is the optimal quality and quantity of learning needed before entering the adult world? If the CCAP empirical evidence on the college spending/economic growth relationship is even remotely correct, it may well be we are overinvested in higher education, and these efforts to shorten the process may be good for society.