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13 Sep Posted by in Academics, Business | 2 comments

Not a new theme, but we’re hearing more and more recently about how to make college faster. To the extent that a goal is to reduce economic burdens on students — less money for residence halls, maybe a bit less on tuition, earlier opportunity to start earning money — the conversation is well worth having. To the extent that a goal is saving money for other entities — like states, for example — the conversation becomes a bit more dubious. Quicker characteristically also means cheaper, and cheaper often means lower quality.

    I’m always uncomfortable seeming conservative, and all the more when I have professional self-interest involved. But the assumptions involved in this particular conversation often leave me very concerned.

    Quicker can happen in a number of ways, which might be combined. Students could start college the summer before normal entry, and use parts of other summers, getting through in three years or less. They would spend a bit less, and certainly have the opportunity to earn earlier. There might be a bit of loss of absorption time with this kind of intensification, but coursework would not be diminished, and the pattern might work out perfectly well (does work out well already, in some individual instances). Additional distance opportunities might enter the mix (again, already happening for some), making the summers still a bit flexible but more educationally productive.

    Quicker might involve taking more college-level work during high school years. Again, this is already happening as AP expands, and there will clearly be a further push for more dual enrollment opportunities in the schools. This is where the worries creep in. We already see lots of high schools bolstering their competitive standing by encouraging more students into presumed college-level work, with results that do not always bring them to necessary college levels. I’m assured that we’d get better college results by providing really good grounding in algebra, with many students, than by promoting calculus-labeled classes, at least for many students. But of course then it wouldn’t seem as if we were moving things along as fast.

    There are some obvious (not just conservative) points. Having necessary knowledge and analytical skills in key fields — beginning with the economically-touted STEM disciplines — becomes more, not less demanding in contemporary societies. We can shave time off degrees, but shaving time from learning is harder — and we need actively to factor learning into the conversation. Dilution is easy, and it will be increasingly tempting, but it’s not in the long-term interest of many students nor of American society as a whole.

    Nothing wrong, again, with intelligent conversation about how to educate quicker. Some experiments would be most welcome, as long as we’re willing to come up with real assessments and not just counting how many more degrees can be tallied.

    A colleague recently mentioned perhaps the most effective caution, in a discussion with a well-intentioned business advocate of streamlined educational efficiency: what kind of education, the advocate was asked, was desired for one’s own kids? Not surprisingly, speed was not the prime criterion here, but rather maturation and learning values.