By Jim Coleman
Last Friday Northwestern University officially announced that it will be offering a fast-track JD. Students will still complete the standard three year curriculum but will do so in two-thirds of the time. This raises the question: if one of the nation’s top law schools can reduce the time it takes to get a law degree by a third, why can’t more undergraduate programs cut the time it take to get a bachelor’s by a fourth? A three years bachelors would both increase college accessibility and lower costs to the students. More people could attend college because universities would be moving students through faster. Students would reap tremendous financial benefits, not only would they be paying for one less year, they would also be earning a salary a year earlier. For those not locked away in the ivory tower, a 3-year bachelor’s is a no brainer.
So, if it’s such a no brainer, why hasn’t it been done? There are two reasons. First, there are perverse financial incentives at work. The government is in the habit of showering money on universities, and the amount of money doled out is linked to the number of students at an institution. Consequently, universities don’t want students to graduate too quickly as that could compromise their future revenue stream. Moreover, students themselves have incentives not to graduate early. The government makes highly subsidized loans available to students, which they don’t have to pay back until after graduation. As a result students have less of an incentive to move on when they can stay in college and party for an extra year, while you the taxpayer cover their loans.
Second, accreditors make it difficult to institutionalize accelerated degree programs. For example, up until 2004 the American Bar Association prohibited any law degree being completed in less than 6 semesters. Such is the case with regional accreditors at the undergraduate level. These accreditors hold regional cartels and are run by the top brass of the universities in that area (the very people they are supposed to be regulating). The accreditors remark that universities must allow “sufficient time” for a proper education and “conform to commonly accepted standards” in higher education. One can see that the vague nature of these statements allow accreditors to twist them to suite their own self-interest. Accreditation commissioners have an incentive to discourage three- year bachelor’s in order maximize revenue at their own institutions as well as to stop competing institutions from offering fast-track programs.
Incentives matter. And it’s unlikely that that we will see wide spread 3-year bachelor programs until financial incentives are changed so as to not reward students and universities for dragging out undergraduate education. Furthermore, the regional accreditation cartels must be broken so that institutions have incentives to openly compete with another in offering fast-track degrees.