Friday, November 20, 2009

The Three-Year Solution

How the reinvention of higher education benefits parents, students, and schools.

Condensed version of article by Lamar Alexander NEWSWEEK
Published Oct 17, 2009, from the magazine issue dated Oct 26, 2009
Alexander, now a U.S. senator, was U.S. education secretary for George H.W. Bush, president of The University of Tennessee, and governor of Tennessee.

Hartwick college, a small liberal-arts school in upstate New York, makes this offer to well-prepared students: earn your undergraduate degree in three years (six semesters) instead of four, and save about $43,000—the amount of one year's tuition and fees. A number of innovative colleges are making the same offer to students anxious about saving time and money. The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car. And that's both an opportunity and a warning for the best higher-education system in the world.

The United States has almost all of the world's best universities. A recent Chinese survey ranks 35 American universities among the top 50, eight among the top 10. Our research universities have been the key to developing the competitive advantages that help Americans produce 25 percent of all the world's wealth. In 2007, 623,805 of the world's brightest students were attracted to American universities.

Colleges like Hartwick are rethinking the old way of doing things and questioning decades-old assumptions about what a college degree means. For instance, why does it have to take four years to earn a diploma? This fall, 16 first-year students and four second-year students at Hartwick, located halfway between Binghamton and Albany, enrolled in the school's new three-year degree program. According to the college, the plan is designed for high-ability, highly motivated students who wish to save money or to move along more rapidly toward advanced degrees.

By eliminating that extra year, three-year degree students save 25 percent in costs. Instead of taking 30 credits a year, these students take 40. During January, Hartwick runs a four-week course during which students may earn three to four credits on or off campus, including a number of international sites. Summer courses are not required, but a student may enroll in them—and pay extra. Three-year students get first crack at course registration. There are no changes in the number of courses professors teach or in their pay.

In April, Lipscomb University in Nashville also announced a three-year option, along with a plan for veterans to attend tuition-free and make it easier and cheaper for community-college students to attend Lipscomb. Lipscomb requires its three-year-degree students to take eight semesters, which means summer school is required. Still, university president Randy Lowry estimates that a three-year-degree student saves about $11,000 in tuition and fees.

The three-year degree is starting to catch on, but it isn't a new idea. Geniuses have always breezed through. Judson College, a 350-student institution in Alabama, has offered students a three-year option for 40 years. Students attend "short terms" in May and June to earn the credits required for graduation. Bates College in Maine and Ball State University in Indiana are among other colleges offering three-year options. Later this month the Rhode Island Legislature is expected to approve a bill requiring all state institutions of higher education to create three-year bachelor programs.

Changes at the high-school level are also helping to make it easier for many students to earn their undergrad degrees in less time. One of five students arrives at college today with Advanced Placement credits amounting to a semester or more of college-level work. Many universities, including large schools like the University of Texas, make it easy for these AP students to graduate faster. According to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent statistics, about 5 percent of U.S. undergraduates finished with bachelor's degrees in three years.

There are drawbacks to moving through school at such a brisk pace. For one, it deprives students of the luxury of time to roam intellectually. Compressing everything into three years also leaves less time for growing up, engaging in extracurricular activities, and studying abroad. On crowded campuses it could mean fewer opportunities to get into a prized professor's class. Iowa's Waldorf College has graduated several hundred students in its three-year-degree programs, but is now phasing out the option. Most Waldorf students wanted the full four-year experience—academically, socially, and athletically. And faculty members will be wary of any change that threatens the core curriculum in the name of moving students into the workforce.

"Most high governmental officials who speak of education policy seem to conceive of education in this light—as a way to ensure economic competitiveness and continued economic growth," Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard told The Washington Post. "I strongly disagree with this approach." Another risk: the new campus schedules might eventually produce less revenue for the institution and longer working hours for faculty members.

Adopting a three-year option will not come easily to most schools. Those that wish to tackle tradition and make American campuses more cost-conscious may find it easier to take Trachtenberg's advice: open campuses year-round. "You could run two complete colleges, with two complete faculties, in the facilities now used half the year for one," he says. "That's without cutting the length of students' vacations, increasing class sizes, or requiring faculty to teach more." Simply requiring one mandatory summer session for every student in four years—as Dartmouth College does—would improve his institution's bottom line by $10 million to $15 million dollars, he says.

Just as a hybrid car is not for every driver, a three-year degree is not for every student. Expanding the three-year option or year-round schedules may be difficult, but it may be more palatable than asking Congress for additional bailout money, asking legislators for more state support, or asking students for even higher tuition payments. Campuses willing to adopt convenient schedules along with more-focused, less-expensive degrees may find that they have a competitive advantage in attracting bright, motivated students. As George Romney might have put it, these sorts of innovations can help American universities, long the example to the world, avoid the perils of success.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thomas Friedman on Entrepreneurial Education

Thomas Friedman, "The New Untouchables," New York Times, October 21, 2009, courtesy Scott Tilden

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.