Robert Zemsky is a unique scholar—he belongs to the same cohort he has studied with a critical eye for more than 40 years. Zemsky is the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education and current chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education. In these and other professional roles, Zemsky has examined the fine balance between a college or university's mission to educate and its business-minded need to stay financially afloat. Part adviser, part watchdog, Zemsky counsels individual schools on how to improve but also opines on what's wrong with higher education and how to fix it. Here, in a recent discussion with U.S. News, Zemsky speaks about his new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education.
Q: How did your participation in the Spellings Commission influence the arguments laid out in Making Reform Work?
A: I was an eager member but a disappointed signer of the Spellings Commission report. Before starting the book, I said to myself, "Well, what did I learn that would make it better next time if we ever did something like the Spellings Commission again?" and the answers to that question became the book. I learned that you can't shout at higher education to change, you can't shame them into being better, you can't beat them up. Though you could financially starve them, that would just make them meaner. I did a lot of meandering in my own head about the most central problems and their possible solutions and decided that the big, potential agent of change is three-year degrees.
Q: What's so great about a three-year degree?
A: Right now, it takes students way too long to finish their coursework for what is supposed to be a four-year degree. We've created a curricular structure in college that's just nuts! It's been about 50 years since I graduated from college, which is a frightening thought, but we had a curricular structure then. You did A before you did B, and then you did C, but that just doesn't exist anymore. Creating a schedule at college today is like walking down the aisles of a supermarket-one of this, two of that, show up at the cash register and get your degree. People get lost with all that choice, and the main reason why people take so long to complete their requirements is because they didn't realize what courses they needed to take to stay on track until it was too late.
Q: So how does a three-year degree work?
A: Unlike the educational supermarket model we have now, much of the curricula required to receive a three-year degree would be fixed. As a student, you get to choose where you want to go and your general path or field, but once you make a decision, there is no wandering around. I also really want what is considered "gen-ed" to take place during the senior year of high school. When my colleagues tell me how preposterous this notion is and how much they believe in the importance of gen-ed, I kindly remind them that I find this funny because none of them actually teach it. Let high school instructors teach those courses to high school seniors, so we can get it out of the way before students embark on their three-year degree coursework.
Q: But what happens if a student changes his mind about his path? So many students come to college with undeclared majors.
A: If you change your mind halfway through, you would have to start again, but you also have to remember that the average time to complete college is 5½ years, so you wouldn't be losing any time against the old standard.
Q: Considering three-year degrees would cause a sharp decline in tuition for colleges and universities, how can you expect they would jump on board with your plan?
A: Colleges need to take a big gulp and just do this. Yes, on the front end, we're looking at 25 percent reductions, but colleges and universities are smart. They will realize that three-year degrees open up an already growing market for master's degrees. Making undergrad more efficient for students means potential growth for master's programs. It's that simple.
Q: If three-year degrees do catch on, something will have sparked colleges 'and universities' discussion about and support for the shift. What might be that spark?
A: I've been doing some writing since the book, and I played an imaginary game of "Could I make it happen, and if so, what would I do?" In the book I talk about the president getting all five governors together, but that's nonsense. They would never all come. Instead, let's pick four states: California, because its public higher education system is in dire shape; Ohio, because its governor and chancellor already think they need to change higher ed; Texas, because you have to pick either Florida or Texas because of the multidimensionality of their democracies...; and New York, because their state system is admirably comprehensive. Imagine now [that] the president invites the governors of these states, 16 educational leaders from these states, other academics who have spoken positively about three-year degrees, and the heads of the country's four accrediting bodies on a retreat to get this process started. You know, that's not necessarily a fantasy—that just might work!
Q: Will three-year degrees help the high numbers of students who start but ultimately drop out of college?
A: We have to get honest with ourselves about attainment. We don't have an access problem; we have an attainment problem. We make dropout rates at college worse because we pay large numbers of unprepared students to go to college. From their perspective, the smartest thing they can do is go to college. They have Pell grants, they have low-interest loans, and they have job prospects that are not promising without a college degree, so what do they have to lose? Lightning just might strike. But of course it doesn't, and many students start failing, get discouraged, and drop out.
Q: The book has been out for a few weeks now. Have you received any significant responses from parents or college students?
A: That's the strange thing about all of this. There are breaks between what people know-which is nothing-and how they act. Families know that college is too expensive, yet they still send their children to expensive schools. People are cautious to come out and support three-year degrees, but especially in response to this book, they are slowly starting to come around.
- Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of America's Best Colleges.