Three and Out: Why College Should Be Shorter

Eight states are introducing a program that will allow tenth graders who pass a series of tests to jump straight to community college. It's not an entirely surprising move, since the American educational philosophy since World War II can be summed up thus: get kids to college. It's a noble and well-meaning goal, but it's folly to funnel more kids to higher education without questioning some of the system's basic assumptions. Lets start with one big question: are we keeping them there too long?

A U.S. college education is a four-year, full-time endeavor, and an increasing number of students are extending it even longer. And that's just undergrad -- any worthwhile graduate degree will set you back a few more years. It's no longer clear what students are gaining from such a long and intensive education.

For a student deciding whether or not to attend university, a four-year commitment can be overwhelming -- and extraordinarily pricey. Tuition is, as always, skyrocketing. It has increased, beyond general inflation, an average of 4.9 percent a year in the last decade at public universities.

Students not blessed with wealthy parents or scholarship opportunities are forced to take out loans to finance their educations -- huge, staggering loans that regularly break six figures. The average graduate in 2007 carried a debt exceeding $20,000, a 6 percent rise from 2006. It's much too much. A shorter time to graduate would dramatically ease the load, as well as allow the student to begin repayment earlier and get out of debt earlier.

And not all graduating students are 22, either. The powers-that-be in the education world can't afford to ignore community colleges any longer. These schools are now supplying about 20 percent of the traditional four-year college student body, and nearly 6.2 million students were enrolled in community colleges in 2006-07. Students transferring from community colleges aren't usually forced to attend the full four years, but more often than not, some credits aren't accepted, and, if they're lucky, they're looking at a five year education. This can be incredibly resource-expensive, especially for mature students and those who have dependents. If we really want to increase college attendance, we have to lower the barrier of entry in time and money.

What about the quality of education -- would it suffer? It needn't. Firstly, there's no reason a tiered system can't be put in place. In Ontario, many universities offer a full bachelor's degree in three years; an honors degree is earned with a fourth. It's not a complicated proposal: let the students who can afford it stick around, offer scholarships to the promising ones who can't, and don't penalize everyone else. Secondly -- and this is especially true in the liberal arts -- there's a diminishing return at play in higher education. I'm a big proponent of the value of a liberal arts education, and I'm not promoting cutting or limiting disciplines. But the fact remains that in most colleges students are primed to succeed by earning grades, not by amassing knowledge; by senior year, they've usually discovered their level of maximum efficiency, how to get the best possible marks with the least possible effort. Senioritis isn't exclusive to high school.

What about the sciences? Here, too, reform is in order. The countries that are serving as the models for the new high school plan -- including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore -- all approach higher education differently, as well; these countries are successful because of the holistic approach they bring to education, and, likewise, we can't attack this problem in piecemeal. Students in those countries (and really almost everywhere but here) begin their professional training -- what we would call graduate school -- right out of the gate. Students studying the sciences now realistically require a graduate degree to be competitive, so why aren't colleges integrating undergraduate and graduate programs better? Why are we making it more difficult and expensive for a student to pursue a science education, especially when we're relying on precisely these future industries? We need incentives, not barriers.

Many regard college as a four-year utopia, a long and drawn-out preface to real life. Maybe it's even, as they say, a party occasionally interrupted by class. But as it stands, that party is simply too long, diluted, and expensive. Sometimes the best parties end early.