Morning Edition. MacBooks. Golden retrievers. Kale. Few things are so unimpeachable among Americans of a certain, shall we say, sensibility as a four-year college education. Why waste the best years of your life working when you could be on campus, singing a capella, hosting a radio show, and drinking PBR tall-boys out of tube socks on the sidelines of your intramural dodge ball game? Oh, and, right, studying.
Never mind that few Ivy League universities and liberal arts colleges offer anything but a fixed, four-year path to graduation. Considering that the unemployment rate for men under the age of 25 with bachelor’s degrees stands at 9.5 percent—and 8 percent for young women—who would want to leave the party early?
Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, who in May announced that his university would begin promoting a three-year degree option for undergrads, thinks he might get some takers. But to be honest—and he’ll tell you this himself—he has no idea. “I think we won’t know until we run it,” he says. “I spent a lot of my career in California. I’m very much in favor of rapid prototyping. So I think we should just try this program, and see how it works, and we’ll tinker with it.”
More than 20 colleges have announced tuition-saving three-year degree programs since 2009, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, but Wesleyan is by far the most prestigious to do so. “The unprecedented jump in new three-year programs is a response to the economic difficulties facing many American families,” says NAICU’s Tony Pals. “While programs were not unheard of prior to the recession—Bates College and Judson College have programs that go back to the 1960s—they were few and far between.”
Roth made his announcement on a Washington Post education blog, writing about his own undergrad experience at Wesleyan and the decision to graduate, in 1978, a year before his classmates. Dad was a furrier; mom gave up singing to sell clothes out of the family’s basement. Neither attended college. With advanced placement credits and summer courses, Roth was able to shave a year off his degree and save his parents $6,000. They’d made great sacrifices to send him there—he was only returning the favor.
Technically, it’s always been possible to graduate in three years, Roth points out. The university is simply advertising it for the first time. “It occurred to me that we could offer students an easier way and more brightly illuminate the path towards a three-year degree than we’d done before,” he says. Incoming freshman will be able to apply two AP credits toward a total of 32 credits needed for a diploma; the rest can come from taking five courses during spring and fall semesters, or enrolling in Wesleyan’s intensive summer school, which runs for six weeks each June.
Because there’s no extra charge for taking five courses during the academic year—the usual number is four—and because summer courses are heavily discounted, a Wesleyan student who trotted, rather than strolled, toward graduation could save 20 percent on her degree, easily $45,000.
Soaring tuition costs aren’t just a problem du jour for college presidents. Increasingly, they’re a threat to long-term sustainability of higher education. Interest rates on Stafford loans—held by seven and a half million Americans—were set to double to 6.8 percent last month until Congress blinked and extended the subsidized rate. Student debt now stands at $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, higher than even credit card debt. Less than 60 percent of students who enroll in four-year programs graduate on time. It’s all presidents can do to try and keep tuition increases pegged to inflation, and even that’s considered heroic.
Small, private colleges face a basic expense “floor,” Roth says, below which they can’t offer intimate classes, high-end facilities, and top-tier professors. In recent years, he’s cut hundreds of millions from Wesleyan’s operating budget and slashed non-academic staff by 11 percent. After all that, university’s sticker price for next fall’s incoming freshman is…$58,532.
“In the last year or so,” he wrote in the Post, “I’ve come to believe that this model is unsustainable.” The cost of college, my friends, is too damn high.
Roth is the first to admit that a three-year degree won’t appeal to some students, athletes among them. Students on financial aid—more than 40 percent of Wesleyan students are—are an obvious target, but so are students whose parents make just enough money to leave them paying full tuition. To these families, $45,000 is no trivial sum. And then there are the kids who are simply ambitious, or uncomfortable with the whole bastion-of-white-privilege-and-why-does-it-feel-like-summer-camp thing, or just want to get the hell out of Middletown and move to Brooklyn.
“Wesleyan is all about options,” says Roth. “We very much are focused on giving students the ability to map out their own educations.”
And then, Wesleyan’s decision seems rather less blasphemous—or even radical—when you consider how arbitrary the agrarian, four-year college calendar is to begin with. As Daniel de Vise, an education reporter for The Washington Post, has noted, Harvard adopted the model in 1652 simply because that’s what the Brits were doing at the time. Everyone else followed suit. England later switched to a three-year degree, but America plodded on. We’re still plodding.
If Roth fails to win converts, it will be less a failure of economic logic than a testament to a higher truth: college is really stinking fun and any of us would give up a kidney for the chance to go back and spend another year kicking around Heidegger, writing experimental fiction, and eating cheese fries for breakfast.
“I have a side bet with one of my economist friends,” Roth says. “She doesn’t think its going to be all that popular. Most people want to be here for four years. None of them want to leave when they graduate, they like it so much.”