Lamar Alexander gets real with U.S. higher education in last week's Newsweek cover article, "The Three-Year Solution," calling for a more nimble and innovative approach to educating American college students and warning that without significant change, the world's best and most respected system of higher education could go the way of the Big Three automakers, stuck in a rut while the world changes around it.
Alexander focuses much of the article on the question of whether three-year degrees are, in part, the way of the future in U.S. higher education. Notwithstanding the understandable concerns about shortening students' academic careers in a country where the leisurely, winding road of a college education is a long-standing tradition, the reality is that the question of whether or not this makes sense may have already been made for us by the Bologna process, which has been moving toward mainstreaming and standardizing three-year degrees across the European Union and beyond (46 countries are participating) for some time now. This is yet another competitive advantage for the many excellent higher education institutions in Europe - it is undoubtedly appealing to many prospective foreign students, especially those contemplating graduate degrees or concerned about financing more years of an education than is absolutely necessary, to have the option to finish their undergraduate degrees in less time.
Alexander writes: "There are drawbacks to moving through school at such a brisk pace. For one, it deprives students of the luxury of time to roam intellectually. Compressing everything into three years also leaves less time for growing up, engaging in extracurricular activities, and studying abroad." Self-exploration is indeed a valuable characteristic of the American college experience, and schools will need to think creatively about how to preserve it. But study abroad is not a luxury that must be sacrificed in the interest of efficiency. It is long-overdue to be repositioned as a central component of American higher education. In today's world, students must graduate from college with the cross-cultural skills and competencies that study abroad is uniquely able to offer, and study abroad needs to be built into any curriculum of any length.
But there's another key issue of educational competitiveness that extends well beyond the campus. In a world where students have more options, in more countries, than ever when it comes to their college education, the United States needs to be much more proactive and deliberate about how it participates in the new era of global educational mobility. Part of the reason America's colleges and universities have been the world's finest is that they have welcomed the world's talent – to their research centers, laboratories, and classrooms. But this won't continue to happen automatically. We need visa and immigration policies that accommodate the realities of how people move and live across borders today. If we can continue to attract the world's finest students and scholars, some of them will stay here, contributing their knowledge and skills at our institutions and our cutting-edge companies. Some of them will return to their own countries, taking with them the knowledge, memories, and perspectives of an American education. And some of them will go to careers and life in other countries. All of them will contribute immensely to ensuring that our own students can continue to benefit from the best education the world can offer.