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Experts are fond of hedging their bets by suggesting that their solution to a problem is  “no panacea.” In Greek mythology, Panacea was the Goddess of cures. According to F. Graf (Greek Mythology) “panacea is used to depict a resolution to a large, multi-faceted problem.” Well, here’s my solution to the biggest problem facing our nation today, according to the experts. And because it solves the problem, by itself, I do offer it as the “Goddess of Cures”.

The problem is that we have fallen to 12th in the world on the percentage of college graduates. My panacea is to adopt the 3-year baccalaureate as the norm.

A comment on the September 17th post raised a very important question; deserving additional discussion. The question from Amy Gibson is:

“Can you in fact say that the three year program will retain more students and graduate them faster, is there any data on that?”

Unfortunately, there are very few three-year bachelor programs in the United States; and comparing the three-year program to the traditional schedule in terms of retention and time to complete has not been performed at this time. To seriously assess the benefits of the three-year program, institutions need to create an experimental three-year program to test the benefits. It is important to note that in every college and university in the U.S. there are a number of students every year who complete the 120 units in three years, despite the lack of a formal three-year schedule.

Comparable data are available from the 32 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, (OECD) Headquartered in Paris. This is the most comprehensive international database available in the world. They report:

Overall, tertiary-type A (equivalent to the baccalaureate in the United States) graduation rates tend to be higher in countries in which programmes are mainly of shorter duration. Tertiary-type A graduation rates are around 40% or more in Australia, Sweden and the United Kingdom, where programmes of three to less than five years are the norm (95% or more of graduates follow programmes of three to less than five years). In contrast, in Austria and Germany, most students complete programmes of at least five years’ duration and tertiary-type A graduation rates are below 25%. In the future, with the implementation of the Bologna process there may be fewer programmes of long duration in European countries. Poland is a notable exception: despite typically long tertiary-type A programmes, its tertiary-type A graduation rate is over 40% [i]

This difference in graduation rates between countries with shorter duration of their baccalaureates and others of longer duration is the only quantitative indication we have that duration of the program affects retention of students. The U. S. is ranked in the middle of other countries, averaging 37.8%. There is a problem with these statistics, with regard to Australia and New Zealand, their graduation rates are artificially inflated by the fact that it includes a large percentage of international students. OECD notes:

Therefore, the adjusted graduation rates – when international students are excluded – for Australia and New Zealand are at 36% and 37% respectively.

Our low average graduation rate, while greater than Australia and New Zealand is not enough even to replace our retiring workforce and that is what concerns us here in the United States. It puts us at par with Italy and the Czech Republic, but ironically way ahead of Austria and Germany where the typical time to completion is five years. According to the Lumina Foundation we need 23 million more graduates than the 39 percent rate would give us. But there’s an additional problem. In the United States, our average time to completion has risen to 4.97 years (in 2007) and therefore, if the hypothesis that taking less time increases the graduation rate, then the opposite is likely to be true, that we can expect our increasing average time to graduation will continue to depress our graduation rate.

Given our current drop-out rates and the expanding time to completion, we will never attain this goal of replacing retiring employees even when we graduate 90 percent of the high school students and 50 percent graduate from College in the average 4.97 years.

OECD Education at a Glance 2009, page 66

So what does this all mean? It means that only a program to complete the baccalaureate in three years can turn around the decline and give us the students we need. The number of Universities adopting this plan would determine the degree to which we are able to successfully replace the retiring workforce. Nothing else is likely to achieve this important goal.

A reader of our September 23 post thinks I am making things too complex and suggests a simpler explanation:

You need to explain it in more basic terms. “If you have a car factory that produces one car every four hours and you change that so that it produces one car every three hours, how many more cars can it produce in a 24 period?” Answer 2

Should we be worried about lower graduation rates in the United States? Of course.

Our economic and social system depends upon an educated electorate, working with state of the art technologies, designing the future. We cannot do this unless we adopt a three-year degree program as the norm for all state colleges and universities.

If we fail to promote the three-year program, we will rapidly descend into an irrecoverable downward spiral feared by Karen Shore on the September 17th post:

“Hate to be an alarmist, but we could be making toys for the Chinese by 2025.”

[i] OECD Education at a Glance 2009, page 67