"We have an undergraduate curriculum that is in need of pruning, reengineering, and clearing out the rubble," says Robert Zemsky, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "From an educational point of view, I think it would be a stronger curriculum. From a financial viewpoint, it would save families 25 percent."
While almost everyone agrees that soaring costs are a problem, many educators push back against anything that would pare down the college experience, arguing that the strength of the US system – particularly with liberal arts schools – is its emphasis on a broad-based education, along with the ability it gives students to explore new subjects, mature, and gain meaningful experiences in the classroom and on campus.
"I don't think our society suffers from overeducation. It suffers from undereducation," says Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University and a former assistant secretary of Education. About one-third of college freshmen enter in need of remediation, she notes, and spend their first year catching up.
Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University, adds that trimming would most likely mean cutting "general education" courses already overburdened with the task of teaching students to write and speak. He envisions a higher-education landscape in which a few elite schools would continue to offer four-year programs while others cut back to three – and begin to resemble vocational schools.
"Whether the savings from a three-year college would be worth the sacrifices is a value judgment," Dr. Bok wrote in an e-mail. "But those of us who believe deeply in a well-rounded education as the best preparation for a full life will clearly regard this change as a long step backward."
While a broad shift in graduation requirements doesn't seem imminent, many more schools are offering formal support to students who do an accelerated program.