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Shortening the Treadmill

By Dylan Matthews

NYU professor Joshua Tucker argues that colleges should award bachelor's degrees after three years – not by adding summer classes, as Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Gerald Kauvar argue in the New York Times this morning, but by requiring fewer classes. Tucker is right that this would offer a number of benefits, not least in encouraging (short) graduate study and reducing tuition costs. If the British system, where three-year bachelor's degrees are the norm, is any indication, such a system would also encourage gap years before college, which would be a healthy development.

That being said, Tucker's proposal should terrify those of us who worry about the easy-to-enter recruiting treadmill that investment banks and management consulting firms have set up on college campuses. Some people figure out a path to a job they love in college. Premed students spend their time doing research and taking the necessary science classes, and end up well-prepared to go to med school. Wannabe teachers enroll in certification programs and graduate as qualified educators. Journalists can spend their time freelancing or working for the school paper, either of which can ease their way into further jobs.

And then there's most people. If you spend college studying what you love, regardless of how it might affect a future career, chances are you'll pick something without a clear next step. Philosophy of language and Slavic literature aren't fields that lead to obvious career paths, other than academia. So students in those areas find themselves in junior year without a paid internship, and look for the easiest tracks to enter. And those, as Ezra's friend on Wall Street explained, tend to be with investment banks and management consultancies.

Tucker's proposal would speed this process up considerably. Instead of having three years to find work they love, or to spend studying something they love without concern about its marketability, students will have only two. These second-year students will probably have less idea of what they want to do, panic more, and be more susceptible to the streamlined banking/consulting/recruiting process. Admittedly, this isn't a problem on every campus, and the tuition concerns Tucker raises probably outweigh it, but if you think finance and consulting are growing too large as sectors, or are snatching up too many students who could be doing more useful or interesting things, three-year college wouldn't help.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 25, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
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If recent history is any guide, we need to be encouraging more education, not less. The complexity of the world is increasing, and the amount of information available is increasing. We need to be equipping people with more skills to place that information in context, not cutting classes from the amount of schooling. Does Slavic Lit help? To a degree on certain things, I'm sure. But certainly a stats class is probably the most important thing we could add to required curricula. Urban political science would help. History classes need to be encouraged/required.

Posted by: StokeyWan | May 25, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Engineering is already largely on this model, though with 4 years of undergrad followed by 1-2 years of a master's program. This has largely replaced the 5-year Engineering BS program, which was very common through the 80's. (A lot of people still end up taking 5 years, though, due to budget cuts.)

Posted by: missionpeak | May 25, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

The British system is fundamentally different from the typical American degree. Although it is a three year degree, it is highly specialized. A three year mathematics degree, for instance, consists of three years of mathematics classes. There are no distribution requirements.

Graduates of such degrees come out with far more mathematics than typical graduates of four year mathematics degrees in the US. Although it is worth noting that the trend in the UK has been towards guiding the more able students into 4 year masters programs.

It would be good to see such programs more widely available in the US, but they are certainly not for everyone. After all, there is still a place for generalists. A three year liberal arts degree might really suffer from a lack of depth.

I grew up in the new Zealand system. A typical degree (a BA, a BSc, or a BCom) was three years. Beyond taking two or three advanced courses in your major, you could take more or less whatever you wanted. If you were more ambitious, you could take an honours degree - these were four year degrees, with much heavier requirements in your major. These were closer in style to British degrees, and were geared towards students planning to go on to graduate school.

Professional degrees were on a different track. They typically took between 4 years (an LLB, or a BE) and 6 years (an MBChB - a medical degree). Note that these were not postgraduate qualifications - you would enter the program straight out of high school.

Many students combined two degrees. A five year LLB/BCom was quite popular, as was a BSc/BE, and a LLB/BA.

As a system, this has a lot to recommend it. People who wanted a minimal college level qualification could complete a BA in three years, but those who wanted a more technical qualification could take an honours degree or professional degree. Doctors and lawyers could get through their schooling a lot more quickly than in the US.

I guess that the downside is that this system encourages earlier specialization than in the US.

Posted by: Unwisdom | May 25, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

"Tucker's proposal should terrify those of us who worry about the easy-to-enter recruiting treadmill that investment banks and management consulting firms have set up on college campuses."

Dylan, I hate to say this, but isn't your POV here just a bit over-the-top in its Harvard-centricity?

It's not like the investment banks' recruiters are recruiting *everywhere*. I'm sure they're thick as fleas at Harvard, and quite easy to find at other Ivies and a few other elite schools like Williams and Swarthmore.

But they're not at Virginia Tech or at Arizona State - and there are orders of magnitude more students attending schools like that than who attend the Ivies.

I'm willing to sacrifice every last grad of an Ivy League college to the investment banks if it'll benefit the graduates of every state college or university around the country. It's win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: rt42 | May 25, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm with rt42 on this one. I go to UC Davis, a good state school. I have never seen big investment firms come to recruit us social sciencers, or anyone for that matter.

There are only so many analyst positions available, and the ivy leagues are more than equipped to fill them up. This couldn't be more of a non-issue.

Also, I've gotta wonder about the fundamental logic behind this post. Are there unfilled analyst desks somewhere? It seems like the recruiting process is already working very well for the banks. If there aren't more spots, how could making it more appealing increase the number of people recruited?

Posted by: Asherlc | May 25, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

You can graduate in three years often if you've entered with enough AP credits. My son did this, though regretted it greatly afterward, having made a graduate school decision based on his inclination toward a specialty in his field after 3 years rather than four. It saved us a ton of tuition money, but it caused him to switch graduate schools and lose a year of time in the end.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | May 25, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

rt42 is dead on.

Dylan, you also realize that rt42 went easy on you because you are young right?

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | May 25, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

"That being said, Tucker's proposal should terrify those of us who worry about the easy-to-enter recruiting treadmill that investment banks and management consulting firms have set up on college campuses."

This seems to neglect the fact that if college were 3 years instead of four, every undergraduate would get an automatic 25% tuition reduction, making them less likely to sell their souls to consulting and finance in order to pay off their student loan debts.

Posted by: theorajones1 | May 25, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Unwisdom's point about earlier specialization is well-taken, too...let's not forget that here in the US curricula are developed locally. There's no national high school curriculum; there's no parallel tracking of curricula to help kids who do or don't want to specialize.

And...what rt42 said. Sorry, kid. You're pretty much just wrong about life outside Hah-vahd.

Posted by: ajw_93 | May 25, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Alternatively, these recruiters may find that they don't want to invest as much into these recent college grads now that they're even younger than they were before. Taking them on costs a lot of money, and it's only worth it if they stay. But my guess is the younger the kid, the more likely they'll want to have more non-banking experiences in their life, are more likely to bail, thus lowering the return on investment. Just a thought.

Posted by: ethanpollack | May 25, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

NOT EVERYONE GOES TO HARVARD. this is basically a non-issue for 99% of american college students.

Posted by: qwe1231 | May 25, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the colleges will cotton to charging their customers 25% less, nor needing to find 25% more candidates to keep their faculty employed. It smacks too much of competition and productivity. The nice thing is that this could be leverage to remove many of the "required" courses that are a waste of time for most people, and are really just hidden employment programs for embedded academics.

Posted by: glenerian | May 25, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Further to Uniwisdoms comment on the relative specialisation of British undergraduate progrmas. It should also be noted that in the UK, incoming students are already somewhat specialised; many subjects have prerequisites in terms of A-Levels the level of which is somewhat comparable to the standard freshman courses in these areas. For instance, Math, Science and Engineering programs require A-level math, which covers the material in the freshman calc sequence and some other topics. The same can be achieved with AP classes as JJ Jenkins mentioned, but the British system already has a significant narrowing at the age of 16.

Still, it seems like the trend is for longer rather than shorter degrees; I read somewhere that the average time to completion at Berkeley is well over four years now.

Posted by: sam_mar | May 25, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm a little surprised this post was written. Only a Harvard student could believe that those WITHOUT a PAID internship are outside the norm. Look, I think it's justified to be worried that very smart students are choosing careers where they will basically push money around. But isn't the real problem the students who strive for Wall Street in the first place, rather than those who just fall into it?

Also, the above posters are right: this recruiting culture doesn't exist on every campus, and I've never heard anyone think otherwise. Believe me, the choice facing most students isn't Wall Street or unemployment. I'm a student, and I definitely wish for efforts to reduce the cost of college. Shortening it isn't the answer, though. This post might be pertinent to the Ivys; for the rest of us, however, this debate couldn't be more irrelevant. As far as I can see, let Wall Street have the Ivy kids; it'll free up the better jobs for the rest of us.

Posted by: penguins123 | May 25, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

1. Even for a social science major, I think one's mastery of the subject really comes in upper division work. I know I felt much greater mastery of the material I studied (political science) after the fourth year than after the third. So I think that cutting off that fourth year would really devalue the experience, and would devalue the meaning of the degree.

2. Even if you can make an argument for the three year program in humanities and social sciences, it seems to me that making this change would be really confusing for physicists, chemists, math majors, etc., when comparing the BA or BS before such a change to the ones earned afterwards.

3. Academics sharpens the mind and broadens intellectual horizons. If anything we need sharper thinkers in the work place, and be in less of a hurry to drop people into the rat race of working life.

4. We have 10% employment. Is this a good time to think about putting people into the job market faster?

5. College is an enjoyable time in life. Don't downsize the experience.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Tuckers proposal is good if you want voters to be less competent, businesses to be less smart and productive, and for society to be poorer and slower growing.

As society gets more and more advanced it takes more and more education to be productive, not less. If anything we should be adding to the number of years for a bachelors degree (and greatly adding to college financial aid). This is why many engineering programs have gone to five years.

Yes, you might argue that you can cut some liberal arts course requirements with no economic productivity loss, but for every one cut (and more) you should add requirements in economics (for smarter voting among other reasons), personal finance (for obvious reasons), and health and nutrition, to name a few. Plus, there's a strong argument that having at least some liberal arts courses, certainly history, creates value worth the costs.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | May 25, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

As many said above me, I'm with rt42 on this one.

I graduated from UC Berkeley in Engineering in May '09.

Out here, at lowly Berkeley, iBanking and management consulting are the most difficult and most competitive tracks to enter. Apparently at Harvard, Slavic Studies majors just waltz right in.

Personally, I avoided that career track altogether and was lucky enough to find a great job nearby.

Posted by: will12 | May 25, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

What about all of the students who start college after graduating from a substandard high school, and don't know algebra or how to write a paper, and need at least 1 year in remedial classes? Shortening college would not benefit them.

These wouldn't be your typical NYU students, but they are a significant fraction of students at the less selective colleges and universities.

Posted by: bupkiss | May 26, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

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