Degrees at American universities take too long to complete, cost too much money, and don’t reliably indicate the acquisition of knowledge or skills. On these points, almost all observers of higher education agree.
The question is what to do about it. Rick Perry made headlines by proposing a $10,000 four-year B.A. In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced a “college scorecard” that will help parents and students “get the most bang for [their] educational buck.” (Right now, the website is a list of Obama’s higher ed policies and proposals rather a rating or comparison tool, but that may change.) Graduate education is under pressure to reform, too. Both academic Ph.D. programs and professional schools are looking at ways to cut costs and completion time, while aligning the training their students receive more closely with the job market.
One way to achieve these goals is to cut a year out of students’ time in school. Walter Russell Mead reports that law schools are seriously considering the once-unthinkable two-year J.D. Mead goes on to ask why the same approach wouldn’t work at the B.A. level. After all, “Oxford and Cambridge give BA degrees in three years, and people don’t complain about their graduates’ illiteracy compared to graduates of our clunky colleges.”
Mead’s observation is fair enough. But there are important differences between the British and American models that make them hard to compare. British students do take their undergraduate degrees in just three years. But they commit before beginning classes to a particular field, which dominates their work at university. British students, in other words, don’t apply to a selective university with a record of general academic ability, and then choose a major after a few years of exploration. Rather, they apply to enter a specific course—say, English—on the basis of success on content-based exams (GCE Adanced, a.ka. “A level”).
Students selected in this way can finish in three years because they’ve mastered introductory material and skills before arriving at university. On the other hand, their education is more focused than Americans generally prefer: there’s no dabbling in a little business, a little ethics, and a little computer science, as Tom Friedman recently mused. What’s more, it’s difficult for students to change courses if their interests change (or they simply get out from under their parents’ thumbs). You can’t apply to study chemistry and just switch to philosophy.
There’s a lot to like in the British model. In addition to limiting time to degree (and therefore cost), it relieves pressure on high school students to succeed in all subjects, rather than concentrating on the ones they’re really good at. Once in college, time devoted to “personal exploration”, study abroad, and other frills is often wasted. The British model encourages students to focus and move on.
But a three-year plan also involves an entirely different institutional context for admissions. That doesn’t only mean selection by members of a particular faculty rather than an independent admissions office. It also requires exams that measure achievement in specific subjects, and high schools capable of preparing students for these exams. In short, degrees that allow student to accomplish in three years what now takes four is appealing goal. But it can’t be realized by just chopping a year out of their time in college.