Check out Teaching Thursday this week, where Joan Hawthorne, the University of North Dakota's Assistant Provost for Assessment and Achievement, considers Lamar Alexander's recent suggestion in Newsweek magazine that we should consider making a three-year B.A. program available for students.
Alexander's suggestion that university education could be completed within three years if universities used space and manpower more efficiently is appealing especially if it could be made to save students a 25% of their tuition. I am skeptical of his math however. Many faculty members work 9 or 10 month salaries that more or less coincide with their teaching loads. It would be necessary, most likely, to increase their compensation in a way that is consistent with their current contractual situation. So some savings would be lost on faculty and presumably staff salaries. Since students would be using facilities for approximately the same duration (that is to say for approximately 36 months of use, simply distributed over 3 instead of 4 years), the percentage of tuition that goes toward maintenance would not be cut in any substantial way. There might, of course, be some initial, perhaps even on-time savings as some facilities -- like residence hall or dinning halls -- could be shut down since the student body would be smaller.
More significantly, however, the university is part of a larger economic system. As we watch unemployment rates push up over 10%, one wonders whether this very moment would be an ideal time to increase the American full-time workforce by releasing a cohort of able bodies, agile minded young go-getters into the economy one year earlier. In fact, a more intensive university experience would effectively withdraw the ability of college students to participate in the less formal, part time, and relatively unskilled economy that characterizes their employment throughout their 4 or 5 year degree programs and thrust them into the adult job market with expectations of full, formal employment.
Finally, it is interesting to note that Alexander celebrates the unique character of US Higher Education while at the same time arguing that we should be more like other, frankly, less successful models. Globally, the 3 year degree must be almost as common as the American 4 year model. These 3 year degrees tend to focus less on a broad-based humanities-centered education and more on practical, focused training in a given field. While in many ways these programs rely upon more robust secondary eduction systems, they nevertheless reflect a far less serious commitment to the breadth of education common to American universities. I'm all for tweaking or even "rethinking everything" about American higher eduction, but I am skeptical of any plan that involves modeling our university system on systems that we have already determined to be less successful.
In any event, don't just read my post, click on through to Teaching Thursday, and as Prof. Hawthorne asks "bring on the conversation"!