The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

On 3-Year BAs


Via Dylan Matthews, Joshua Tucker of The Monkey Cage has endorsed Trachtenberg and Kauvar’s call for a “degree in three.” First, Trachtenberg and Kauvar.

Three-year curriculums, which might involve two full summers of study with short breaks between terms, would increase the number of students who can be accommodated during a four-year period, and reduce institutional costs per student. While there would be costs for the additional teachers and staff, those would be offset by an increase in tuition revenue.

Then Tucker:

I was expecting the authors to argue that rather than cram a fourth year into the summers, we could just redefine a BA to mean three years of undergraduate education. This would raise the interesting question: do undergraduates really need a fourth year of undergraduate education in an era when so many go on to post-graduate work?

Let’s define the current typical undergraduate experience as 8 courses per year, for a total of 32 classes. Roughly speaking, let’s say students have to devote half of those courses to their major/minor/certificate granting courses, a quarter to getting a liberal arts education, and a quarter to electives. Now let’s suppose in our new, three year BA world, students are expected to take 9 courses a year instead of 8 – that leaves us with 27 courses. If we cut the “liberal arts requirements” by 1 course to 7, we could have 16 courses for one’s major/minor/certificate granting courses, still leaving time for 4 electives, or two in your first year and one in each of the second and third years.

Tucker is talking about a relatively privileged slice of undergraduate students, as are Trachtenberg and Kauvar to an extent. The large and growing number of U.S. undergraduates attend commuter schools that allocate space far more efficiently than elite residential colleges and universities, and distance education is probably a more effective way of tackling the problem. But as a new norm, the 3-year approach makes a great deal of sense.

Of course, a 4-year norm would also be nice. As the undergraduate population has grown larger and more diverse, 4-year graduation rates have sharply declined, as USA Today reported last summer.

Nationally, four-year colleges graduated an average of just 53% of entering students within six years, and “rates below 50%, 40% and even 30% are distressingly easy to find,” says the report by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. It’s based on data reported to the Education Department by nearly 1,400 schools about full-time first-time students who entered in fall 2001.

Interestingly enough, there is considerable variation in 4-year graduation rates across schools that are similarly selective:


•Among schools that require only a high school diploma for admission, Walla Walla University and Heritage University, both in Washington state, reported graduation rates of 53% and 17%, respectively.

•Among colleges that require high school grades averaging a B-minus or better, John Carroll University inCleveland and Chicago State University in Illinois graduated 74% vs. 16%, respectively.

•In the “most competitive” group, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Reed College in Portland, Ore., graduated 96% vs. 76%, respectively.

Those of us who know and love Reed College won’t find this terribly surprising, and it’s not obvious to me that it means Reed College is falling down on the job. It is good to know if you’re a Reed parent, however. The more interesting and important tier, from a public policy perspective, is the Walla Walla tier. We presumably invest taxpayer dollars in public education to help give students from modest backgrounds an opportunity to gain valuable skills. If the schools we’re investing in — public and private — aren’t delivering value for money in this regard, we ought to rethink our strategy.

Dylan’s concerns are also centered on a relatively privileged segment of the undergraduate population: But he acknowledges that his concerns are most likely outweighed by tuition concerns.

Instead of having three years to find work they love, or to spend studying something they love without concern about its marketability, students will have only two. These second-year students will probably have less idea of what they want to do, panic more, and be more susceptible to the streamlined banking/consulting/recruiting process. Admittedly, this isn’t a problem on every campus, and the tuition concerns Tucker raises probably outweigh it, but if you think finance and consulting are growing too large as sectors, or are snatching up too many students who could be doing more useful or interesting things, three-year college wouldn’t help.

Basically, I think we should everything we can to break the education cartel, in higher education as much as in K-12. It is one of the main bottlenecks for economic growth in the U.S.  


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