Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently made headlines when he announced in his 2016 State of the State address his desire to work with the University of Wisconsin System to explore providing a three-year degree that would start in the high schools and continue on many of the UW campuses. “This would help reduce costs and move people into the workforce sooner,” he said. Governor Walker’s credentials in higher education reform are controversial at best. To the consternation of many university administrators, he has focused almost exclusively on college affordability, which has resulted in a tuition freeze at the UW System for the past four years. Moving to a three-year curriculum is in keeping with his slash-and-burn reputation when it comes to cutting costs in higher education—but would it really create results for students and taxpayers?
Walker is not the first to explore the possibility of a three-year degree—former Harvard University President Charles Eliot attempted to enact a similar proposal at Harvard College more than 100 years ago. He met with stiff faculty and administrative resistance, and we expect Governor Walker to fare similarly. But before we write off Mr. Walker’s efforts, it’s worth noting that his motivation is similar to President Eliot’s in the 1890s: a concern that students pay too high a cost, in both dollars and time, to earn a college degree.
High costs for students have resulted in exploding student debt, which students are often unable to pay back once they enter the labor market. Curriculum designs, which focus on getting students through college efficiently, can reduce costs for both students and the public. Even if the cost of the program remains the same, the cost of college is not only about tuition paid: it’s also about labor market opportunities forgone.
Done well, a curricular redesign to enable graduation in three years would refocus institutions on learning objectives and mastery—and away from seat time. It would also require tighter integration between high schools and colleges by building on dual-enrollment programs available in many states and highlighting the pathway to college for students still in high school. Three-year degrees would almost certainly require using campus facilities over the summer months and taking advantage of online courses, two sorely needed efficiency improvements in higher education. The UW System has already made important moves toward competency-based learning objectives through its UW Flex program and could extend that curriculum toward a three-year degree option.
Done poorly, a three-year degree would produce 75 percent of the education in 75 percent of the time—probably at more than 75 percent of the cost. Would students actually graduate in three years? The University of Wisconsin Stout already offers a three-year degree option for certain majors by taking advantage of the summer session, but it has seen little uptake and total tuition costs are equivalent to the four-year option. In the UW System, completion rates over four years range from 50 percent at UW Madison to a meager nine percent at UW Parkside. Although these numbers may seem shocking, they are in line with national averages: completion rates over six years hover just under 60 percent. In the interest of crawling before we walk, perhaps administrators and lawmakers might better spend their time creating a true four-year degree. Redesigning the curriculum and advising services to enable the majority of students to graduate in four years would reduce costs for a broader swathe of students and the UW System. Given low and slow completion rates nationally and in Wisconsin, only a small minority of existing students might be able to take advantage of a three-year degree option.