More College Students, Less College

Earlier in the year the University of Miami’s medical school quietly announced an intriguing re-design of their physician training program. There aren’t a ton of available details, but the gist seems the be that the school will replace some classroom lectures with online content while at same time increasing the presence of “small-group, case-based learning sessions.” Increasing the use of both online content and small-group activities in situations where they make efficient use of resources is a common sense step, but what’s momentous about the changes is that they could allow people to earn their medical degrees in less time.

“Eventually, our School will move away from a traditional calendar-based approach to medical education to create a true competency-based program,” said Gardner. “That would allow many students to complete the first two years of our program more rapidly, shortening the time necessary to obtain a degree, while other students would be able to master the core competencies at a slower pace.”

If medical schools manage to shorten matriculation times, over a given time period they’ll be able to enroll more students. The result would be a greater supply of doctors, lower healthcare costs, and less student loan debt. The benefits of spending less time in college beg the question of why we’re not doing do more to establish and promote 3- or 3-and-a-half year programs and competency-based degrees at the undergraduate level.

I would actually go even further than that. For the most part, these 3-year programs merely cram the standard 4-year, 120-128 credit degree into a shorter time frame. Competency-based degrees require a less arbitrary scope of learning, but in order to begin replacing standard degrees in a significant they would most likely have to be based on what your average student learns in four years. Given this strict adherence to the 120-128 credit standard, I think it’s worth asking whether that’s the optimal amount of education for a student to have?

This is a crucial question because there’s a lot of evidence that we’re keeping young people in the higher education system for an inefficiently lengthy amount of time. Couldn’t three years prepare certain people in certain situations for a computer programming, accounting, or biology career? In the end we’d churn out more of the scientists and engineers society craves, and though the increase in the supply of professionals could lead to small wage decreases in certain high paying jobs, the lower cost of the services these people (e.g. accountants) provide would act as a real wage increase for everybody else. Shortening degree times is not without precedent. A bunch of law school bigwigs recently admitted that for many law students a third year is unnecessary.

The standard objection is that lengthy B.A. requirements create the well-rounded adults that form the bedrock of society. But is it really that important for students who are ready to join the labor force to spend a semester’s worth of time and tuition fulfilling P.E and foreign language requirements? The goal of an all-encompassing liberal arts education is well-intentioned and admirable. But shouldn’t we be asking whether a 2nd semester senior occasionally attending his Ceramics class is an efficient way of achieving that goal? Couldn’t we get the same level of “horizon broadening” through less costly commitments involving extracurricular activities, volunteer work, event-attendance, or studying abroad?

More importantly, college is expensive! And that’s a huge burden on low-income students. In fact, it’s such a big burden that the prospect of sustaining oneself for four years is enough to turn people off the idea of going to college. A norm that’s more accepting of fewer requirements would not only improve the odds that a low-income student earns their degree, it would improve the odds they attempt to earn a degree in the first place. Some may object by saying that going to college for only three years could distinguish low-income students in a negative way, but given that the best and brightest would likely jump at the chance to spend less time in college and more time making money, I don’t think that’s a major concern.

Why is the current standard four years and 120-ish credits? That’s a good question. Why not ten years? Or five years? Or three years? And even if four years was the perfect length at the time when it become the norm, given how different the world is today might it not be possible that a 4-year norm is no longer ideal?

What’s less unclear is why the 4-year norm has remained. When nearly every single person in a position of power earned a 120-ish credit bachelor’s degree, there’s not going to be a lot of thought given to different ways of doing things. There’s also the financial model of universities, which for the most part depends on years of education, not the number of students who graduate. Besides than the fact that more graduates mean more potential alumni donors, it doesn’t really matter to a school if three students each graduate in four years or four students each graduate in three years. The revenue is the same. But it matters a lot to those students, and on a grand scale it matters to the American economy.

Now that’ I’ve provoked you all into yelling “that’s crazy talk,” I’m willing to admit that it’s entirely possible the current system is ideal. Perhaps 120-ish credits over four years spits perfectly-rounded graduates out into the real world right when the marginal gains from additional classes would begin a steep decline. My point is that we don’t know, and we need to be asking the question. The degree to which we’ve simply assumed the efficacy of a major component of our society is breathtaking. At some point I’ll get around to finishing a longer, more thoughtful piece about the need to question the entrenched characteristics of the B.A, but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to not view the 120-ish credit B.A. as an eternal truth. It’s hard to comprehend the range and scale of the loss inflicted on society from forcing students to spent too much time in college, and we should be doing all we can to ensure it doesn’t happen.

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