Making College a Three-Year Experience

Maybe we should start to call it the best three years of your life. Today we've got a spat of articles arguing that some colleges should shrink the bachelors degree requirement by a year, either by adding summer classes or requiring fewer courses. The upsides are fairly straightforward: More students get a chance to go to school, each one pays less tuition, and we shave off some of that infamous debt burden.

The whip-smart Dylan Matthews over at the Washington Post raises an objection: less time in school means less time to think about your career, which might force even more students to fall into the i-bank/consultant cesspool:

Tucker's proposal would speed this process up considerably. 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.

That's an interesting concern that I wouldn't have thought of. I'm not sure I find it all that concerning.

First, there's nothing special about the number four (for either high school or college). It's become a Western norm based on ancient Christian church curricula, and all sorts of college customs have grown up inside the four-year mold, from freshman writing seminars, to fall semesters abroad, to sophomore deadlines for declaring your major. Some of those hallmarks might have to change. But if we're starting with a clean slate and thinking about efficiently educating young guys and gals for 21st century jobs, we should think about whether it makes sense to start with a four-year bachelors degree as a baseline.

Second, a truncated college experience wouldn't necessarily make students "more susceptible to the streamlined banking/consulting/recruiting process" because it wouldn't change much on the recruiting supply side. Investment banks and consultant groups hold a lot of sway over college graduates not only because students are feeling wayward, but also because they offer awesome salaries, plush benefit packages, a truckload of perks and a clear vertical trajectory in your career. It doesn't matter if college is one year or seven years. Bain consulting will still proffer a higher salary than a local teacher or reporter. Moreover (disclosure: I have three close high school friends at Bain & Company in Boston) I'm not convinced that a consulting job is a bad first gig out of college. It's not karmic social work exactly, but it's challenging, collaborative problem-solving (and some of it is even pro bono!). It's not a monster.

The more important question here is about college access and affordability. Relative to everyone else, college graduates have never done better than they are doing right now, as David Leonhardt writes (with graphs!) in the New York Times. And yet many of the jobs with the highest growth capacity in the next decade -- like some in health care, education and construction -- don't necessitate the debt burden of four years at a university. We're due for a major rethink in the education sector, and three-year bachelor degrees deserve a place in the conversation.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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