The Bachelor's Degree Is Obsolete?

Why don’t we declare the bachelor’s degree obsolete? No, not education, not colleges and universities, not professors or libraries or students, just the four-year bachelor’s degree. (You might turn on your iPod while you read. You’ll see why.)

May 13, 2008

Why don’t we declare the bachelor’s degree obsolete? No, not education, not colleges and universities, not professors or libraries or students, just the four-year bachelor’s degree. (You might turn on your iPod while you read. You’ll see why.)

Western history traces this four-year package back to the University of Bologna, before Gutenberg, when the pedagogical constraint was the shortage of books. Students had to gather in large rooms while the professor read from one of the scarce books. Only Wikipedia, in my scrounging around, notes that the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco and Al-Azhar University in Egypt preceded Bologna in their founding and in granting multi-year degrees.

Before dismissing any questions, note that this academic year has not been kind to U.S. higher education. Dead canaries litter the coal mines and the executive suites of U.S. colleges and universities as another academic year draws to a close. The capital markets have pulled out of major segments of lending for college loans. Wouldn’t even a Finance 101 student say this exit means the capital markets are challenging the value of a college degree? The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has demanded explanations about outcomes from the wealthiest colleges and universities.

Charles Miller, the Spellings Commission chair, gutted the College Board for poor math after the College Board offered the old chestnut that college is a good investment because graduates will earn $1 million more in their lifetimes. In Massachusetts, legislators, unable to find the public good from the nation’s wealthiest and self-described best colleges and universities, had the temerity to wonder about taxing endowments. A problematic solution (taxing endowments) does not erase a solid question.

The latest trend in higher education is how many students need five and even six years to arrange four years of college. Half the nation’s twenty million college students are in two-year community colleges, with the odds of achieving a four-year degree against them. The price of the degree, what customers pay in tuition, discounted or not, keeps rising. This cripples families in cost and debt and shuts out those whose income prohibit them from even thinking about college. This nation, any nation, needs all the educated citizens we can create. We seem to be failing.

I am the first to agree that students fortunate enough to go to an Ivy League school, Stanford, Duke, Williams, Amherst, Grinnell, or the flagship state universities are part of what any gathering of one or more educational leaders calls “the best higher education system in the world.” I am one of those graduates. What, though, does that greatness do for those the millions shut out or struggling as part-time students? All the undergraduate spots in all those fine institutions amount to a tiny fraction of the 20 million students now in college.

I keep looking for how to describe what’s going on. I keep reading the fine anthologies of war reporting and civil rights reporting from the Library of America. In metaphor, I feel closer to the war correspondents. People are dying in the rest, the “not the best in the world,” segment of U.S. higher education today.

In the civil rights comparison, I keep looking for the James Farmer, the Julian Bond, the Martin Luther King, the Thurgood Marshall to speak out for the students whom we, the people, are failing to educate. I keep looking for the Justice Department officials -- the Nicholas Katzenbach, the John Doar, the Burke Marshall -- or someone who will stand up for equality and against a federal system that allocates tens of thousands of federal dollars in tax benefits and other subsidies to students at Yale and Williams and Harvard while arcane rules and impenetrable paperwork prevent a student working two jobs at a community college from receiving a $4,000 federal Pell Grant. I keep asking in my reporting, “Never mind how Yale and Princeton spend their own money. What about just what the federal government spends on each student who has found his or her way to college? Aren’t the Yale student and the community college student both U.S. citizens?” I know, I know how many people are weary of that question from me.

I’m left to wonder what I’m missing. Perhaps the next unasked question is about this product we call college, the four-year bachelor’s degree. In defending the high cost of education, college and university presidents and business officers have taken everything into account except the fundamental cost of delivery. In MBA speak, the central cost driver of a college education is not health insurance, salaries, rising oil costs, or even costly academic journals. It is the four-year, 36-course structure that determines the cost of a college degree. This model, leading to annual tuitions and fees of $25,000 at public colleges and $50,000 at many private ones, crushes families with $100,000 to $200,000 in cost and debt.

Impossible to imagine the end of the bachelor's degree packaged into four years? Most of us -- households or other enterprises -- from time to time take a look at the fundamentals of our budgets and ask, “Is there another way?” As an example, consider the bloodless iPod and MP3 revolution. What happened? A demographic cohort, people roughly 16 to 25 years old who wanted access to one song at a time in a form that could easily be shared among friends, revolted and created a new market when the music industry refused any modifications or price breaks.

How can I present this outlandish question, and some solutions, with any hope of a hearing? I put my “greatest education in the world” to use and pulled out Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a man with a mind and a pen who did get we, the people, thinking. Using Paine’s structure to think these issues through, I wrote a pamphlet. I asked Frank Kramer, owner of the independent Harvard Bookstore, what a price would be that’s low enough for an impulse purchase but high enough to make the pamphlet worth ringing up if the store keeps all the proceeds. “Three dollars, but you need endorsements,” he said. Columnists cannot be choosy. I accepted damnations, too.

Inside Higher Ed and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity invite you to download the pamphlet (and sell if you wish) for free. (To make and distribute your own pamphlets, print this version on 8x11 paper, run through a double-sided copier, and fold in half.)

Before cashiering this question about ending the bachelor’s degree, consider a passage from the introduction to patriot Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776.

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”


Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This column and the attached pamphlet flow from that work.


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