OVER the next few weeks more than half a million students will graduate from American colleges, the vast majority with at least four years of campus life behind them. Indeed, the assumption that it takes four years to get an undergraduate education — or three to get a law degree, or four to get a medical degree — lies at the center of the American university system.
That assumption needs to change. The college experience may be idyllic, but it’s also wasteful and expensive, both for students and institutions. There is simply no reason undergraduate degrees can’t be finished in three years, and many reasons they should be.
Switching from four to three years would be simple; it would mostly be a matter of altering calendars and adding a few more faculty members and staff. Some institutions have already shortened programs for graduate degrees: Northwestern Law School has pioneered a two-year degree, while Texas Tech University offers a three-year medical degree. But the idea has yet to percolate down into undergraduate programs, though the advantages would be even more pronounced.
Colleges should consider making the switch, too. 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.
Meanwhile, institutions that go quiet in the summer, incurring the unnecessary expense of running nearly empty buildings, would be able to use their facilities year-round.