Addressing Inefficiency in Higher Ed

Via the Chronicle, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has a piece in this week’s Newsweek making the case for more three-year degree programs at colleges and universities. Alexander, a former president at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, can speak from experience when he opines on higher education issues, and his solution is an immediately sensible one: He calls on universities to make better use of their facilities by adjusting their schedules to teach students year round, and in turn make better use of students’ time by letting them leave with diplomas after three years.

In looking to curtail the rising cost of college, Alexander is on the right track. But there are a couple more elements in play he doesn’t really get into. First, if colleges didn’t spend so much money on generally unnecessary components (like Boston University’s new Hermitage-lite dormitories) students wouldn’t have to pay so much to go college, and thus might not find themselves in the position of choosing between four years of college and financial security. It’s a real choice that, and in a better world people wouldn’t have to make it.

But more broadly, Alexander stops short of his argument’s natural continuation—which is that for universities to truly become more efficient in how they educate students (and make the most use of those tuition dollars), they might want to rethink not just what time of year and how long students are in the classroom, but how student accomplishment is measured. Just as it’s a little ridiculous to continue to bookmark the conventional school year with the harvest and planting seasons, it’s also quite inefficient to mark students’ progress by how many hours they’ve sat in a lecture hall—the fundamental metric of a credit and semester-based system, whether it’s over four years or three.

Offering accelerated degree programs that cram the same number of courses into three years instead of four goes a long way toward correcting a symptom—unnecessarily high costs—but leaves a larger inefficiency unaddressed.

One school that has broken from this mold is Southern New Hampshire University, which offers a three-year honors track competency-based program. Students are evaluated over the course of the program in how far they’ve progressed in 10 different competencies, such as “communication” and “global orientation.” As president Paul LeBlanc explained to me in September, it rests on the idea that higher education could learn something from video games:

Game design is by its nature a competency-based experience, and game designers are very, very good at engaging users (we would think students, they think users or players) and… attempts to master something in order to get to the next level. We use that analogy for learning. And it’s a way in which you can then be highly individualized. You would then have students moving through their education at faster or slower rates, depending on their mastery of various competencies.

That kind of program hasn’t been brought to any sort of scale just yet, and, as Alexander, LeBlanc, and just about everyone else would readily point out, it’s not for everyone. But for reform-minded politicians, it’s worth remembering that higher education institutions could stand to improve upon more than just their bottom lines.

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.