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High School in 3, College in 3, Law School in 2: What's the Rush?

The 2013 graduating class of Fox Creek High School, on June 6 in Graniteville, South Carolina

Photograph by Michael Sullivan/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The 2013 graduating class of Fox Creek High School, on June 6 in Graniteville, South Carolina

(Corrects Botstein’s title. He is still president of Bard College.)

President Barack Obama says law school should take two years instead of three. Lamar Alexander, the former Secretary of Education, thinks a bachelor’s degree (pdf) should take three years instead of four. And Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, thinks high school should take two years instead of four.

Put the three ideas together and what do you get? A lot of 21-year-olds with law degrees. Hmm. Maybe this race to graduate needs to be thought through a little more.

Shortening schooling is far from a fresh idea. As early as the 19th century, Harvard University experimented with three-year bachelor degrees, according to a thorough brief (pdf) (if a brief can be thorough) published last year by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

No doubt there’s more waste air in higher education than in an empty garden hose. Even setting aside the lost sales of beer and Frisbees, though, there are some big drawbacks to rushing the golden years of higher learning.

Less learning, for one. Obama could be right about a 2/3 solution for law schools, where the third year is known for being the one where they bore you to death. But the vast majority of high school students and college undergrads, those who aren’t supermotivated, are bound to learn less if their schedules are compressed. This at a time when the demand for knowledge is rising. Instead of fewer years, maybe the answer is more learning per year.

Acceleration should of course be an option for students, but it’s hard to see making it the norm. Heck, even the current schedule rushes them. Only 38 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges manage to graduate within four years. Fifty-four percent get out in five years or less, 58 percent get out in six years or less, and the rest graduate either later or … never. That’s according to (pdf) the National Center for Education Statistics.

Kevin Carey, education policy director of the New America Foundation, wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009 entitled “3-Year Degrees Are the Future, and Always Will Be.”

The one thing that could make Carey wrong might be the rise of online learning, as in those MOOCs (massive open online courses) everyone’s talking about. MOOCs could either supplement campus learning or replace it, “disrupting” colleges in a serious way. Brace for the possibility of the Zero-Year Degree.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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